A Republican effort to reform the US immigration system teetered once again on the brink of failure on Friday, as the Trump administration continued to face fierce backlash for its crackdown on migrants at the southern border.
As Republicans scrambled to build support among their fractious party for an immigration plan that would meet Donald Trump’s vision for an immigration overhaul, the president advised GOP lawmakers to “stop wasting their time” on an issue that has split the party for more than a decade.
GOP leaders in Congress were twice forced to postpone an immigration bill, presented as a compromise between moderate and conservative members of the party, as negotiators made an 11th-hour push for consensus. The vote was first delayed to Friday and then to next week.
“Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November,” Trump tweeted. “Dems are just playing games, have no intention of doing anything to solves this decades old problem. We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!”
Democrats, who were not involved in negotiations over the Republican bills, blamed the president for standing in the way of immigration reform. Trump continued his attacks on Democrats, claiming in a later tweet that they were telling “phony stories of sadness and grief” for electoral gain.
Most forecasters in fact predict a possible “blue wave” in the November midterm elections, meaning a sweep of Democratic wins to take back the House and possibly the Senate.
Delicate negotiations over the Republican immigration bill are playing out against a backdrop of extraordinary international outrage over Trump’s “zero-tolerance” enforcement policy, which was captured by dramatic scenes of children in cages and young migrants crying for their parents.
Trump partially reversed the policy this week under pressure from the pope, the British prime minister, the United Nations, every living first lady including his wife and prominent Republican leaders. The fate of the 2,300 children who were separated from their parents remains unclear. Some experts are concerned that separations may continue, even though Trump declared when signing his executive order that “we are going to keep the families together”.
The Department of Defense is ready to make space available on military bases for as many as 20,000 unaccompanied migrant children, a spokesman told the Associated Press.
Game over. [Trump's tweet] takes the wind out of the sails in what might have been a fairly productive weekMark Sanford
Despite Republican control of Congress, GOP leaders have struggles to unite their fractious party on immigration. Trump swooped into a Republican meeting earlier this week, but members left with the impression that his support was half-hearted at best. And his equivocation on Twitter has not helped leaders recruit support for the bill.
“Game over,” the Republican congressman Mark Sanford, a Trump critic, told CNN, saying Trump’s tweet “takes the wind out of the sails in what might have been a fairly productive week of looking for a compromise”.
Trump’s morning tweet was the latest wrinkle in a weeks-long process that began with a rebellion by a group of moderate Republicans who launched a petition drive to force a series of immigration votes.
The “compromise” plan was brokered by Republican leadership to quell the uprising – and became the vehicle to address two urgent crises triggered by Trump’s hardline immigration agenda: his cancellation of a program that shielded from deportation hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, known as Dreamers, and the zero-tolerance policy which led to the family separations.
As proposed, the bill would include $25bn for Trump’s border wall, a campaign promise. It would also limit legal immigration, provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and end family separations.
Yet after a two-hour closed-door meeting on Thursday evening, negotiators told reporters they were exploring modifications to the bill to appease conservatives. One element would require employers to use E-verify, a federal database that determines the legal status of workers. The other provision would deal with visas for agricultural workers.
The House on Thursday defeated a more hardline immigration plan that would have dramatically restricted legal immigration without guaranteeing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. The vote was closer than many Republicans expected, leaving some conservatives to wonder if the focus had been on the wrong measure.
“There’s been a full court press the past 48 hours on the compromise bill,” Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, told Fox. “Perhaps if we had done that on the first bill we would have gotten to that sweet spot of 218 votes. But you know, history is over with that bill.”
Senate Republicans have moved forward with a different approach, hoping to pass a narrowly crafted standalone measure that would allow families to stay together in detention while increasing the number of federal immigration judges.
Meanwhile, Trump appeared alongside relatives of victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The family members, whom Trump referred to as the “human toll of illegal immigration”, shared their stories in harrowing detail. Several speakers emphasized that their’s was a “permanent separation”.
In his remarks Trump railed against illegal immigration, lamenting that countries are sending “bad ones” to the US. Yet his administration has widely targeted immigrants with no criminal record and no history of violence. And despite his focus on violent crime, studies have shown that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes than US-born people.
“We’ll not rest until our border is secure, our citizens are safe and we end this immigration crisis once and for all,” Trump said, speaking after the families. “Your loved ones have not died in vain.”
In a dramatic ending to an exceptionally chaotic week in Washington, Democratic congressman Ted Lieu used his time on the House floor to play a recording of immigrant children crying out for their parents.
Karen Handel, a Republican congresswoman who was presiding over the chamber, ordered Lieu to suspend his speech, arguing that playing audio was a breach of House decorum.
“I think the American people need to hear this,” Lieu protested.
After roughly five minutes, Lieu yielded the floor and the House adjourned for the weekend, once again leaving the issue of immigration for another day.