Showdown looms as Trump links wall funding to fate of migrants

US President Donald Trump speaking at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC on Dec 18, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Lawmakers are racing against the clock to strike a deal in two weeks that will avoid a government shutdown and mass deportations of some 700,000 young immigrants in the United States.

The urgency grew after President Donald Trump hardened his demands for a deal to protect the immigrants, who are children of illegal immigrants and are now studying and working in the US. Any deal must address other issues, including providing money for a wall on the Mexican border.

This implies that failure to reach a deal by Jan 19 will also delay the passage of a spending Bill that funds the federal government.

That potentially means a shutdown of federal government offices and services, with a huge impact on ordinary Americans.

Amid the current ruthlessly partisan atmosphere in Washington, it is not certain if a deal can be made. If the stalemate produces a shutdown, Republicans and Democrats will blame each other, with the consequences severe for whoever is perceived by the American public to be at fault.

Mr Trump's base wants what he has promised - over 3,000km of wall on the border with Mexico to keep illegal immigrants and drugs out of the US.

In practical terms, illegal border crossings are already down by over 70 per cent. A large percentage of illegal immigrants did not cross the border illegally, but are overstaying their visas.

Mr Gilberto Hinojosa, Democrat Party chair of Texas - the state with the longest border with Mexico - wrote: "From the beginning, Donald Trump (has been) appeasing a fringe political base by feeding them a steady diet of anti-immigrant, un-American rhetoric."

"The wall is extremely ineffective, a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, and turns our back on the values and traditions that speak to the best of who we are as a nation," he said in an e-mail to The Straits Times.

But the wall was a key campaign pledge for Mr Trump. He wants to build it and is insisting he will only allow the 700,000 immigrants of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme to stay if he gets enough money to build the wall.

DACA, an executive action taken by former President Barack Obama, allowed undocumented immigrants - known as Dreamers - who came to the US under the age of 16 to apply for protection from deportation. After a background check, they were able to get renewable two-year permits to work and study in the US.

Since DACA went into effect in 2012, roughly 800,000 people had been protected by the programme, and roughly 700,000 had active DACA protections in September. Beneficiaries include Guatemalans, Koreans, El Salvadorans, Filipinos, Chinese and Indians, but by far, the largest group are Mexicans.

As part of a new deal, Mr Trump also wants to end "chain migration" which allows immigrants to sponsor family members, and the allotment of visas to people from countries with low rates of migration to America.

"The president wants to have responsible immigration reform," White House Press Secretary told reporters on Monday (Jan 1). "That is a big priority for the administration in 2018. It would be part of any package that includes DACA."

Mr Trump rescinded the programme last September on the rationale that Mr Obama had ignored Congress. He passed the hot potato to Congress with a March 5 deadline for new legislation to address the issue of the Dreamers.

That deadline was in effect brought forward to this month when Mr Trump tweeted last Friday: "The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc."

But he has to contend not only with both the Democratic Party, which is set on helping the Dreamers and set against the wall, but some ambivalent Republicans with one eye on mid-term elections coming up in November.

"It's a game of chicken, or who blinks first," Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American studies at Cornell University, told The Straits Times.

"The Democrats are feeling energised but… their base will not smile on an agreement that does not protect the DACA individuals, and in all likelihood will not smile on an agreement that funds, to any significant degree, a border wall."

"The Republican leadership believes that the public will not support a government shutdown if it is done simply to protect the DACA recipients. They may be willing to push the Democrats, and tar them with the impact of a government shutdown."

If neither party blinks, a federal government shutdown looms. And DACA recipients will still be at risk.

In a joint statement after a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, the Senate Majority Leader's Office, the House Speaker's Office, and the White House said: "It is important that we achieve a two-year agreement that funds our troops and provides for our national security and other critical functions of the federal government."

"It also remains important that members of Congress do not hold funding for our troops hostage for immigration policy."

New York-based Republican strategist and commentator Evan Siegfried was pessimistic. "I think the future for DACA is not good," he told The Straits Times.

"There is some support among Senate Republicans for DACA. But I think in this climate, especially in a mid-term election year, to get either one of those done - a wall, or DACA - is much harder. If you are a Republican and vote for anything close to DACA, you will be called weak on immigration."

"I don't think there's bipartisan support for anything," he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.