President Donald Trump asked for $1.6 billion to “build the wall” in his first budget proposal — far short of what it would actually take — but even that may not go anywhere in Congress.
If you ask congressional Republicans about Trump’s ambitious immigration agenda, from building the wall to passing new immigration restrictions, you’re more likely to get a chuckle or a wink than a timeline. Background conversations with Republican aides all indicated the same thing: Immigration isn’t at the forefront of anyone’s agenda right now. It’s a conclusion that’s at times reached with actual laughter.
“Ask the president,” Sen. John McCain said curtly on how Congress will act on Trump’s signature campaign proposals, after the 2017 budget bill was passed.
When pressed, McCain, who has actively campaigned on immigration reform, only repeated, “Ask the president.”
As Trump has gotten more politically toxic, dogged by scandals surrounding the firing of FBI Director James Comey and reportedly leaking highly classified intelligence to Russian officials, Republican lawmakers are, if anything, even more distracted. So far, Congress has only sidestepped Trump’s key immigration issues — in their last spending bill, passed in May, the border wall got a hard pass, deportation forces got no new money, and Congress left funding for sanctuary cities untouched.
“It’s crazy,” a Republican congressional staffer mused, reflecting on the dissonance between Trump’s signature priorities and Congress’s agenda.
The story of immigration on the Hill is a question of the president’s legislating influence: Does Trump expect his priorities to be taken literally or just seriously? On an issue as defining and high-stakes as immigration, it’s clear that the Republican Congress is doing neither — at least until Trump twists some arms.
“I want to see a temper tantrum” from Trump
So far, Congress is not rushing to take up the Trump immigration agenda, preferring to leave that work to Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department. As one member of Congress put it, they aren’t taking up the controversial issue unless Trump makes them do it.
“What we are waiting to see is that he is upset,” Rep. Dave Brat, a Virginia Republican, said. “I want to see a temper tantrum. I want him to say, hey, I believe in the stuff that I said and okay, in the short run you can play games up here in the Capitol, but the Republicans have all three branches in government.”
In an effort to show some unity between Trump’s agenda and that of congressional Republicans, he added that he himself has “several” immigration-related bills.
“One co-sponsored with Ro Khanna,” Brat said. He didn’t have details on it offhand. It turns out it’s a bipartisan effort to curb fraud in the H-1B high-skilled worker visa program. Brat couldn’t remember the others. Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the Republican House Judiciary chair, has a couple of immigration bills going through congressional committees — including one that would codify Trump’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office, a hotline for people to report crimes by immigrants.
But Congress has already missed its first self-imposed deadline for border security. According to a schedule leaked to Politico, wall and border funding was supposed to be sorted out by the end of April. To be sure, there is some money allocated for border security in the 2017 budget passed in early May — but it’s a far cry from Trump’s initial request.
It’s clear their attention is elsewhere. The Senate is taking up the House’s Obamacare repeal bill. The House has moved on to tax reform. Then it will be time to to sort out the 2018 budget, then infrastructure. And all the Russia-related scandals certainly won’t be speeding up the process.
“[Immigration] is probably well below those this year,” Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said, going through Congress’s priorities.
New York Rep. Chris Collins, a moderate Republican who has Trump’s ear, put immigration fourth or so on the list. “First priority health care, second priority tax reform,” he listed. He winked to suggest some uncertainty.
The border wall could be a factor in infrastructure, Collins suggested. If there’s any talk of immigration policy, it’s only that: border security.
Nothing close to “comprehensive” immigration reform — conservatives don’t like the sound of “comprehensive anything,” one congressional aide close to the conservative House Freedom Caucus said.
Trump hasn’t forced immigration on Congress yet
There’s no question that the White House has a long to-do list on immigration. In early May, a photograph of Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon revealed a whiteboard in the West Wing with at least 18 immigration-related bullet points:
- Cancel all federal funding to sanctuary cities
- Build the border wall and eventually make Mexico (pay for it)
- Sunset our visa laws so that Congress is forced (...) revise and revisit them
- Finally complete the biometric entry-exit visa tra(cking system)
- Propose Passage of Davis-Oliver Bill
- Immediately terminate Obama’s “two illegal e(xecutive orders”?)
The implication is that there are some things Congress will be “forced” to take up: “DACA kids are going to start timing out on us soon, so that issue will come up on us — but it’s too early still,” Republican Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows undocumented immigrants who arrived as children to receive a renewable two-year relief from deportation.
Trump has implied both that the White House would stop reviewing renewal applications and that he would continue the program. For now, he has not taken any action on DACA.
In 2016, Flake proposed a two-phase bill that would both expand the DACA program and tighten enforcement for undocumented criminals.
“We’ll see,” Flake said.
How serious is Trump?
There was a moment in late April where it seemed Trump was going to take a harder line with Congress on his immigration promises. It was over the 2017 budget bill; Democrats had the leverage in negotiations with the threat of a filibuster in the Senate — and they were willing allow a government shutdown to stop additional funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the border wall.
The administration briefly involved itself in negotiations. The Office of Management and Budget reportedly threatened Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi that the White House could stop paying key subsidies for Obamacare if Republicans didn’t get their way on border security. But then it all stopped. Trump backed down, setting his eyes on the 2018 budget to fight for his wall. Instead, he began tweeting angrily at Democrats for obstructing him.
To be clear, it will be just as hard for Republicans to get what they want in the 2018 budget. Trump can fight for more border security money — but it’s possible even that will go nowhere.
And a border wall won’t make immigration reform happen on its own — on that, Oklahoma Republican and veteran appropriator Tom Cole says Trump should wait.
“Until the [borders are secured] I don’t see a Republican House passing immigration reform,” Cole said. “Politically I would make it my third year if I were [Trump], and I would make it very bipartisan.”
But for that to happen, it will require congressional Republicans to take his immigration agenda seriously — and literally.