WASHINGTON ― During a televised meeting with lawmakers at the White House on Tuesday, President Donald Trump seemed to endorse a number of controversial immigration positions that are giving conservatives on Capitol Hill some cause for concern, particularly a taboo term among Trump’s base: “comprehensive immigration reform.”
If Trump moved forward with just a “clean” deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told HuffPost on Tuesday, it would be one of the few ways by which Trump “could lose the conservative base.”
“It’s untold damage that it would create among the conservative base,” the North Carolina Republican said.
Tuesday night, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) took to the House floor to denounce even the talk of a DACA deal, saying any time people in Washington start discussing “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants in some form, “there is a fresh surge across our border.”
Trump being Trump, he didn’t quite say he would support a clean DACA deal (one not tied to other immigration issues) ― or, if he did, he quickly backtracked.
“I think a clean DACA bill, to me, is a DACA bill, but we take care of the 800,000 people,” Trump said. “But I think, to me, a clean bill is a bill of DACA, we take care of them, and we also take care of security.”
What exactly Trump means by ”clean” or “security” is anyone’s guess, but lawmakers jumped at the chance Tuesday to define those terms for the president.
“Clean DACA meant what he said, which is these three other things,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who was at the meeting, said. Trump did mention that, alongside DACA, he wanted border security, the end of so-called chain migration (when relatives legally in the U.S. sponsor family members who immigrate) and the end to the diversity visa lottery program.
Trump also suggested “border security” didn’t just mean more border agents or resources along the U.S.-Mexico border. “If you don’t have the wall, you can’t have security,” he said.
Trump, however, struck a much more conciliatory tone than his campaign rhetoric that had suggested Mexican immigrants were criminals and rapists. On Tuesday, he said he wanted “a bill of love.”
The White House also tried to clean up some of Trump’s remarks later Tuesday, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters that the president’s definition of “clean” would also include “closing the loopholes and making sure we have a solution on that front so we don’t create a problem and find ourselves right back where we started in one, two, three years later.”
But conservative lawmakers couldn’t help but notice that Trump was playing fast and loose with a third-rail term in the Republican Party: “comprehensive immigration reform.”
“The word ‘comprehensive’ ― I’ve used it ― and it’s like nails on a chalkboard to many conservatives, because it brings up ideas of the Gang of Eight bill in the Senate,” Meadows said, referring to a controversial 2013 immigration bill that failed.
“The comprehensive immigration reform and what it means to the conservative base, and the context in which the president used it today, are probably not congruent,” Meadows added.
Either way, it got the attention of lawmakers.
“I don’t think he probably realizes what that sounds like to many Americans based on the last big conversation,” conservative Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said of Trump’s use of “comprehensive.” “So, to him, it’s just a term that seems to make sense.”
Conservative Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) told HuffPost that Trump’s use of that word was “very confusing, especially to his base.”
“With President Trump, until I can read it, I don’t know,” Jones said. “We all have our different definitions.”
Immigration activists in Congress, particularly the Republican ones, have learned to avoid phrases like “comprehensive immigration reform.”
“I won’t use those terms, because I know that ‘comprehensive’ is one of those terms, or ‘amnesty,’ or ‘path to citizenship.’ You know, we all know what all those are that have different definitions to different people,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who supports immigration reform, said Tuesday. “Remember: The president is not a political animal that’s been doing this for a million years.”
(Even if Trump hasn’t been doing this “for a million years,” immigration was a signature issue of his year-and-a-half presidential campaign, and, if Trump is so unfamiliar with the meaning of “comprehensive immigration reform,” it’s curious that he used that exact phrase.)
Still, Diaz-Balart said no one should get “stuck in semantics.” He praised the president for holding the meeting, which he called “exceedingly helpful.”
But it’s anyone’s guess how the DACA immigration matter will play out. Labrador, who’s been writing a DACA bill in the Judiciary Committee, expects his bill, or legislation like it, to soon come before the House and pass with Republican support. Democrats have little incentive to vote for a measure like the one Labrador is proposing. His bill would end chain migration, which Democrats oppose doing, and institute other changes they don’t want.
Democrats believe they have the leverage on the DACA issue, as Republicans still need Democratic help to keep the government open past Jan. 19. It’s just unclear whether Democrats are truly willing to enter a government shutdown over DACA. Thus far, Democrats have agreed to a number of short-term spending extensions without a DACA agreement, and the prospect of yet another extension looms large as time runs short.
But as conservatives express some uneasiness over Trump’s latest immigration comments, liberals are suddenly expressing cautious optimism.
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), perhaps the most pro-immigration Democrat in Congress, had some reluctant praise for Trump’s meeting Tuesday.
“I’m happy it took place. I’m hopeful,” Gutiérrez said.
Elise Foley contributed to this report.