Lawmakers want to know what President Donald Trump wants on immigration. But nearly five months of meetings, memos, tweets, and press conferences have provided little clarity. Trump and White House staff have repeatedly muddled their message on the future of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the administration plans to fully sunset by March 5.
It’s become a seemingly never-ending routine between the two branches of government: Congress stalls negotiations, waiting for clarity from Trump; the White House releases guidance, then backpedals, leaving DACA, and the nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants the program protects, in limbo. Rinse. Repeat. Confusion is par for the course.
Trump is expected to release an “outline” for a bipartisan immigration deal — again — on Monday that calls for a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, $25 billion to fund a southern border wall, substantial curtailing of family immigration, and elimination of the diversity visa lottery program, which some say could gut the legal immigration system.
White House adviser Stephen Miller briefed Republican congressional staff on the plan Thursday. The proposal is the first indication from the White House that Trump is willing to make some concessions on the hardline immigration views his administration has espoused thus far.
The proposal has already been lost in translation. The White House has given congressional aides on both sides of the immigration debate the impression that the proposal could be amended to their liking — to be more liberal, and to be more conservative.
This is the latest position the White House has taken on DACA, and there’s already the sentiment on Capitol Hill that it might not be the last. A long history of Trump “frameworks” and “outlines” precedes it. Here’s a timeline of the White House’s evolving and at times contradictory positions on DACA and immigration reform.
Trump announces decision to sunset DACA
On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the government would fully stop granting protections from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, instituted by President Barack Obama in 2012, by March 5. That gave Congress six months to act.
The announcement spurred some early action in Washington. It would have to be a bipartisan fix.
In mid-September, Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer joined President Trump for a private dinner. They left insinuating they had struck a deal on the future of DACA: They’d enshrine the program, which protects certain undocumented immigrants who came to the US in their youth from deportation, into law. They also won concessions on measures like giving these immigrants a path to citizenship. In exchange, Trump would get some kind of border security funding, but not funds for a border wall.
But shortly after Democrats made the announcement, the White House disputed the story — at least in part. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted that “excluding the wall was certainly not agreed to.”
Trump then managed to sow more confusion, tweeting that “no deal” had been made and reasserting his push for a border wall, while still expressing his desire to protect those currently under DACA.
By the next morning, he had already told reporters that a deal on DACA was imminent, that GOP leadership was on board, and that a “wall would come later.”
A deal was far from imminent.
Trump’s list of immigration demands is out of the conservative playbook
By October, action over the DACA deal in Congress had slowed. Republicans were in the throes of pushing forward their tax cut agenda, and nothing — certainly not immigration — would stand in the way.
Instead, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill called for clarity from the Trump administration. They still didn’t know what exactly Trump wanted in an immigration bill past some version of DACA and border security.
On October 8, the White House made it clear their definition of “border security” was much broader than some fencing and surveillance technology, and they were “not interested” in giving DREAMers a path to citizenship.
In a written list of immigration priorities, the White House unveiled a kitchen sink of measures restricting immigration, including a border wall, mandatory use of the E-Verify employment certification system, an end to family immigration, policies to make it harder for people to seek asylum, and funds for the border wall.
As Vox’s Dara Lind put it, Trump’s administration essentially asked “for Congress to enact Trump’s entire immigration platform from the 2016 campaign, and then some.”
That stance continued through the next month.
By the end of November, the two top Democrats — Pelosi and Schumer — pulled out of a meeting with Trump on government spending after he tweeted that he didn’t “see a deal” happening with them. “Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes,” Trump tweeted.
An attempt to accept the realities of bipartisanship
A month later, in mid-December, immigration talks on Capitol Hill were concentrated in a bipartisan group of six senators. Their liaison to the White House was Chief of Staff John Kelly.
At that point, the White House had had an inconclusive meeting with Democratic leaders and released a list of immigration demands that aligned with the most hardline immigration hawks. Kelly was supposed to give the senators clarity on what the White House actually wanted.
“We couldn’t finish this product, this bill, until we knew where the administration was,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who was part of this negotiating group, told reporters then.
Kelly seemed to be softening the White House’s previous demands — many of which, like the restrictions on asylum seekers, were untenable in the bipartisan working group. He promised a new list of border security and policy changes from the White House.
By late December, he tweeted that there would be no deal on DACA without funding the border wall, an end to “chain migration,” and a complete overhaul of the legal immigration system.
2018: a year for bipartisan talks, “shitholes” and more frameworks. Still no deal.
January was promised to be dedicated to immigration negotiations. Flake had exchanged a vote on the GOP tax bill for the promise of a vote on a DACA bill by the end of the month.
At the start of the new year, the White House didn’t seem in the spirit of negotiations. Democrats who had been calling for more clarity on the White House’s position on DACA were presented with the October hardline immigration wish list, with the addition of a cost estimate on the border wall: $18 billion. The move was panned by Democrats.
But on January 9, Trump gathered a bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate in the White House to talk immigration. The room covered the entire political spectrum, from immigration hardliners like Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) to progressive Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus leader Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM).
Trump appeared to agree to almost everything presented to him, even if it came from Democrats. He said he would “like” to pass a “clean” DACA bill that would restore protections for nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants against deportation. He also said both that he would “take the heat” politically for comprehensive immigration reform and that he was in favor of a two-phase immigration reform package that addressed DACA first and more “comprehensive” policy reforms secondarily.
At one point in the meeting, Trump seemed so amenable to Democratic demands that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) had to jump in and remind Trump of the Republican position on DACA: that any agreement needs to come with substantial border security.
Republican senators returned to the Capitol saying the conversation with Trump “narrowed” negotiations to four factors: the legal status of DACA recipients, border security, family-based immigration, and the visa lottery system.
In the days following, it became clear that no bill that addressed those four pillars would suffice.
On January 11, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), who had been leading bipartisan talks on immigration for months, pitched Trump on a plan that would give DREAMers a chance at legal status and a path to citizenship. At the same time, it would restrict them from sponsoring their parents, eliminate the diversity visa lottery, and fund some border projects. The plan was panned by conservative immigration hawks as “preposterous.”
Trump stayed in line with the hardliners and nixed the idea, reportedly complaining about immigrants from “shithole” (or “shithouse”) countries like Haiti and saying the US should take more immigrants from Norway instead.
White House staff tried to take control of negotiations. Chief of Staff Kelly met with Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday, repeating what many have known for a long time: A physical border wall will not stretch the entire southern border, Mexico won’t be paying for it, and Trump is in favor of permanent legal protections for DREAMers.
Then Trump tweeted Thursday morning that the wall “will be paid for, directly or indirectly, or through longer term reimbursement, by Mexico.”
Spinning negotiations into chaos over the inflammatory racist comment, and doubling down on campaign slogans against the wall, Democrats pushed negotiations over DACA into a three-day government shutdown.
The White House, during that period, said they wouldn’t engage in any immigration talks until Democrats voted to fund the government. Trump even turned down Schumer’s offer to put $20 billion for the southern border wall on the table.
Once it looked like Senate Democrats would agree to open the government again, Trump called red-state Democrats Sen. Joe Manchin (WV) and newly elected Doug Jones (AL) to his office to talk. According to Vox’s Ella Nilsen, the conversation on immigration didn’t get into many specifics.
Then on January 25, the White House came forward with details of its latest proposal: a path to citizenship for not just current DACA recipients but even those that qualify and haven’t applied for the protections; $25 billion for a wall and border security; an end to the visa lottery program; and restrictions on chain migration.
Both Republican leaders in the House and Senate have supported the clarity offered by the White House proposal, but have made no commitments.
The question remains: Will the White House stick to its plan? Or will it change its mind again?