WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump further swept the debate over “dreamer” protections into confusion Thursday when he said he was not considering allowing hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants to become citizens, putting him at odds with top congressional Democrats who believed he supported the idea.
“We’re not looking at citizenship,” Trump told reporters on an airport tarmac in Florida, where he was scheduled to check in on relief efforts following Hurricane Irma. “We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here. . . . We’re talking about taking care of people, people who were brought here, people who’ve done a good job,” he said.
The comments challenged top Democrats’ understanding of his position following a dinner Wednesday night, where they said Trump agreed to pursue a deal protecting a segment of illegal immigrants under the so-called DREAM Act, which includes a long-term path to citizenship. The deal would also include tougher border security measures in lieu – for now – of a border wall.
“I believe there is an understanding that down the road there is an eventual path to citizenship under the DREAM Act,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at a news conference on Capitol Hill.
Asked about Trump’s comments in Florida, she said citizenship is “in the bill – that’s in the bill.”
Republican leaders, who were not part of the discussions, said any deal that Trump reaches with Democrats would still have to go through the GOP-controlled Congress.
“I think the president understands he has to work with the congressional majorities to get any kind of legislative solution,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said at a Thursday news conference.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remained noncommittal in a statement that put the onus for a plan on the White House.
“As Congress debates the best ways to address illegal immigration through strong border security and interior enforcement, DACA should be part of those discussions. We look forward to receiving the Trump administration’s legislative proposal as we continue our work on these issues,” McConnell stated.
In deciding to pursue an agreement with Democrats, Trump took power from Republicans for the second time in two weeks. GOP leaders had already been slighted by Trump’s recent deal to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government until Dec. 8.
Among rank-and-file members, Democrats and more centrist Republicans praised Trump’s stance while ultraconservative lawmakers reacted with muted outrage.
“Nothing short of a physical wall will suffice,” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., a conservative hard-liner, said in a statement.
“I also disagree that the focus of our efforts should be on creating yet another amnesty program. . . . Instead, Congress should prioritize full enforcement of our immigration laws, eliminating incentives that drive illegal immigration, and fully funding a physical border wall,” Biggs stated.
The shifting alliances became more apparent Thursday morning after Trump defended “dreamers” on Twitter, calling them “good, educated and accomplished young people” and prompting rank-and-file Democrats to concur.
“I agree with you Mr President,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., then wrote on Twitter.
But Republicans were divided, with some lawmakers such as Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., giving Trump “kudos” for the deal on Twitter while ultraconservative Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, decrying Trump’s position as “amnesty.”
“Unbelievable! Amnesty is a pardon for immigration law breakers coupled with the reward of the objective of their crime,” King tweeted Wednesday night.
“Trump base is blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair. No promise is credible . . . Mr. President, I support your agenda, especially your no amnesty agenda. MAGA!” King wrote, using the initialism for Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, seemed miffed at being kept out of the loop. “Morn news says u made deal w Schumer on DACA/hv ur staff brief me,” he tweeted at Trump.
Other Republicans, even those in leadership, couldn’t help but demonstrate their confusion about the whole situation.
In one example, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted a link to a story in which White House officials denied any deal on “dreamers” existed. Schumer’s office rebutted the tweet, saying Trump has confirmed the basic structure for a deal.
After that, Cornyn simply dismissed the agreement as something Congress will have to approve, in the end.
The feeling of betrayal was acute for conservative hard-liners who support construction of a border wall, which Trump, speaking with reporters Thursday morning, said will “come later.”
“We want to get massive border security. And I think that both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, I think they agree with it,” Trump said.
“Look, 92 percent of the people agree on DACA, but what we want is very, very powerful border security, okay?” he said, referring to survey data in support of “dreamers.”
Schumer and Pelosi said border security measures in the final agreement could include drones, sensor technology, road repairs and other strategies included in a bipartisan bill from 2013 that instructed federal officials to draft a plan ensuring apprehension of 90 percent of all illegal border-crossers within five years.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Schumer called the notion of a physical wall “a ‘Game of Thrones’ idea for a world that is closer to ‘Star Wars.'”
“What remains to be negotiated are the details of border security with a mutual goal of finalizing all the details as soon as possible,” Schumer said Thursday morning.
“Details will matter, but it was a very, very positive step” to see Trump agree to seek legal protection for “dreamers,” he said.