On Tuesday evening, in a State of the Union address billed as “optimistic, heartfelt, and bipartisan,” President Donald Trump revealed just how fractured Congress is on the issue that swept him into the White House: immigration.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been scrambling to piece together legislation that would address the fate of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, alongside other reforms dear to Trump’s heart, including curtailing chain migration and ending the visa lottery system. Last week, the White House unveiled its “four pillars” of immigration reform: a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “Dreamers” and those undocumented immigrants who would otherwise qualify for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; a $25 billion trust for a wall along the Mexican border; ending the visa lottery in favor of a merit-based immigration system; and limiting family reunification to sponsorships for spouses and minor children only. The plan caused a stir among hardline conservatives in the House and plenty of Democrats in both chambers. But a senior House Republican aide told me at the time, “When the bill is being ripped by the Freedom Caucus and liberals, yet it includes things both camps like, I think you’ve found the sweet spot to begin negotiating.”
Those hopes were dashed on Tuesday.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of Trump’s speech came when he pledged to “protect the nuclear family” by ending chain migration. “In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by … chain migration,” he said. Democrats erupted in a cacophony of boos and hisses; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was forced to stand up from her chair to quiet them. “It showed there will be no DACA deal,” a senior Senate Republican aide texted me. (The staffers who spoke for this story made their comments on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.) Indeed, if the White House suggested tonight that ending chain migration was a nonnegotiable component of immigration reform, Democrats made clear that it’s not a price they’re willing to pay—even for a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers.” As if to underscore this point, when Trump summed up his proposal as a “down-the-middle compromise,” Democrats cackled.
“He could have taken a more strategic tone on immigration,” another senior Senate GOP aide lamented. “When he talks about the dangers of chain migration and open borders, even if there’s truth to what he’s saying, he plays into Democrats’ hands by making it easier for them to paint him as a fear-mongering nativist.”
Moreover, as Trump boasted that his plan would ferry “almost three times more” Dreamers into citizenship than in any other administration, House conservatives such as Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows and his predecessor, Jim Jordan, sitting side-by-side, looked sullen. In the last few days, Freedom Caucus members haven’t been shy about panning the president for revoking his “no amnesty” pledge from the campaign trail: ”If you ask voters in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that swung to Donald Trump if this amnesty plan keeps his promises,” Virginia’s Dave Brat said in a statement, “they will tell you it does not.”
“He could have done this without a pathway to citizenship. Legal status would have worked,” a senior aide to one Freedom Caucus member told me. “I don’t get this move at all.”
Taken together, it was enough to make the first senior Senate GOP aide predict that a DACA deal would “never” happen. “And definitely not before February 8th”—the day government funding runs out, and the day before which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had pledged to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that, if not a deal, a timeline for a floor vote would materialize. This raises the specter of a government shutdown once more: If McConnell and Schumer cannot reach a tentative agreement on immigration reform, such that a floor vote looks imminent, Democrats may feel little incentive this time to hand over the votes to keep the government open.
That Trump used immigration reform as the focal point of his speech suggests the White House views it as its best chance for a legislative win before midterms. Trump himself said as much: “Over the next few weeks,” he promised, “the House and Senate will be voting on an immigration reform package.” (News, certainly, to the majority of lawmakers.)
It was a stark contrast to the vague language Trump used for other policy goals, whether reducing prescription drug prices or bringing a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package to the floor—the contours of which have yet to see the light of day. And with a long-term budget deal looking more and more unattainable, Republicans know that their chance to pass a big-ticket item, such as welfare reform, is all but gone. Which means they’re banking on immigration reform to help them coast into November—and they’ll need Democratic votes to make it happen.
What matters now, then, is not what Trump wants in an immigration plan; what matters now is what he’s willing to give up—and who will feel burned in the process. As a top House Republican staffer put it to me at the end of the speech, “It seems like we’re always playing with fire.”