WASHINGTON — A bipartisan meeting between President Donald Trump and members of Congress on Tuesday appears to have moved negotiations forward, however slightly, on how to address the fate of undocumented immigrants under the DACA program.
Members of both parties and the White House said they agreed that the four issues to be addressed initially include DACA, border security, changes to family-based migration, also known as chain migration, and an end to the visa lottery system, a development that could help narrow the parameters of an otherwise wide-ranging and contentious set of issues around immigration.
But while some progress was made about the scope of the debate, there was no agreement reached on any of the tricky details, only broad sentiments from both sides about the need to solve the DACA issue.
One of the major questions already being raised from the meeting revolves around the definition of border security and the fate of Trump's much-touted wall.
Republican senators who have been talking to the White House, have been softly redefining the definition of a border wall for the past week, saying Trump wasn't literal when he promised a physical structure spanning the entire length of the southern border.
At the meeting Tuesday, Trump appeared to be talking in similar terms, and he didn't mention that Mexico would pay for it.
"We are doing a study of that right now, but there are large areas where you do not need a wall because you have a mountain, and you have a river, you have a violent river. You don’t need it," he said.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said after the meeting that border security is going to be the "most troubling" issues, but she and other senators said the president didn't emphasize an $18 billion request to fund a physical wall that the White House sent to Congress last Friday night. Instead, the president talked about 700 miles worth of a wall or a fence that isn't continuous, Hirono said.
"It's not a 2,000 mile wall," Hirono said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in a briefing after the meeting that the border wall remained a key aspect to the president. "We certainly believe that the wall is part of border security, that is one component of it. We firmly, again, believe that border security has to be part of this negotiation and part of this deal."
And later Tuesday evening, the president made clear he remains committed to the wall as part of any deal, tweeting:
Surprising observers and participants in the room, Trump said he wanted "a bill of love" to address the initial issues first then endorsed moving ahead on comprehensive immigration reform once those are addressed.
"We’ll do DACA. Then we can start comprehensive immigration reform the next afternoon," Trump said as television cameras rolled on the first 55 minutes of the 2 1/2 hour meeting, which featured members of Congress talking to the president about where they stood on the issue. It was a rare, extended look inside a policy discussion between the president and lawmakers.
"I’ll take the heat off the Democrats and Republicans," Trump said. "I will."
"It was one of the most extraordinary meetings certainly I have participated in here in Washington where the press was not only invited in the beginning but stayed and stayed and stayed as we had a chance to talk about our views," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.
The bipartisan meeting comes at a particularly tenuous time, with Congress facing the threat of a government shutdown in just 10 days and the lack of agreement on DACA tangling up efforts to keep the government’s lights on.
Ahead of the meeting, Republicans and Democrats remained at an impasse over the scope of a deal and what, exactly, should be included in it. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., left the meeting saying he had no expectations of reaching an agreement on Tuesday but was encouraged with the discussion.
"I didn't go in with any hope with anything. With 22 people in the room you don't negotiate, but there were a few encouraging things," Flake told NBC News afterward. He said Trump showed "quite a bit of flexibility when the cameras weren't there in terms of what we do in this phase and in the next phase, and an acknowledgment that a lot of things we want to do are going to be part of a comprehensive bill but not now," he added.
Democrats had hoped to keep the discussions as narrow as possible to immediately create a bill that would address DACA and some components of border security. Trump gave a March 5 deadline for Congress to act, before all DACA recipients‘ legal status expires. More than 1,000 people a day are losing their protected status.
Democrats would also like to include another 700,000 Dreamers, people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, who didn’t apply for protected status. And they want the fix to be the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for all Dreamers.
Trump and some Republicans are wanting changes to family-based migration, which they often call "chain migration." Democrats and Flake, who are wanting a more narrow bill, have said that they'd accept changes to program only as it pertains to family members of DACA recipients, not broad-based changes to the program.
A group of Democrats and Republicans have been negotiating a deal on DACA for at least two months but members have been waiting for Trump to unveil his specific priorities. On Friday night, the White House sent the Hill a proposal for $33 billion over 10 years for border security and enforcement, including $18 billion for the construction of a border wall, further complicating the prospects of a deal.
Democrats have been adamant that they won’t support the construction of a border wall. Republicans, many of whom had also been opposed to a physical structure stretching across the southern border with Mexico, now say Trump wasn’t literal in his campaign pledge to build a wall.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been leading bipartisan talks with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., put the onus on the House.
"Well the Senate (is) not you're problem," Graham said. "We’ve passed immigration reform in Senate three times. My collages in the house are going to have their version of how to solve this problem the problem is it goes to the house and it dies."