WASHINGTON – Immigration talks on Capitol Hill foundered Thursday after the White House and some GOP lawmakers rejected a tentative deal from a bipartisan Senate group – and President Donald Trump made incendiary remarks about people from developing countries.
In a midday immigration meeting with senators in which they proposed protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and some African nations, Trump became frustrated and made a reference to "shithole countries," arguing that the U.S. should bring in more immigrants from Norway instead, according to several people briefed on his comments.
Those explosive remarks from the president roiled the debate as Democrats erupted in outrage and accused Trump of setting back prospects for any deal.
"This is like throwing gasoline to the fire," said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. "It's not consistent with what the behavior of a president should be."
The fast-moving developments came as lawmakers and the White House try to come up with a solution for immigrants brought illegally to this country as children, who are losing temporary protections granted with executive powers by President Barack Obama under a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Trump plans to phase out the program completely in March unless Congress replaces it.
The president's remarks came at a moment of frustration during an Oval Office meeting with Republican and Democratic lawmakers Thursday, as they were presenting an opening bid for a broad immigration package.
The deal included a solution for "dreamers," as well as improvements to border security and changes to two other elements to the immigration system: one allowing U.S. citizens to sponsor certain relatives for citizenship, and the other, known as the "diversity visa lottery," which distributes 50,000 visas annually to nations with low rates of migration to the United States.
Trump became angry during a conversation about the visa lottery program, which benefits some African countries, and about the temporary protected status afforded to immigrants from certain nations, including El Salvador and Haiti.
"Why do we need more Haitians?" Trump said, according to people familiar with the meeting. "Take them out."
The comments left lawmakers taken aback, according to people familiar with their reactions. And the events left any solution looking even more elusive – and raised prospects for a government shutdown because Democrats are insisting on a DACA deal before they vote for spending legislation that must pass by midnight on Jan. 19.
The day began much differently, with rumors circulating on Capitol Hill that senators from both parties were close to an immigration deal.
Not long after, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., announced that there was indeed an agreement.
We "have an agreement in principle. We're shopping it to our colleagues," Flake told reporters.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another member of the group, added that "we have answered the call" of Trump, who brought Democrats and Republicans together at the White House earlier this week and called on them to reach a deal he can sign.
But the tentative plan from just six senators in a closely-divided body of 100 immediately sparked fresh tensions over how Republicans should oversee the emotionally charged immigration debate.
White House officials and top GOP Senate leaders insisted that no deal had been reached. Adding to the confusion, other groups of lawmakers are meeting separately to come up with a solution, including the vote counters in each chamber, who have been called on by Trump to reach consensus. Some of these lawmakers bridled at the notion that a small group of their colleagues, especially a group that does not include any immigration hard-liners, could come up with a deal and impose it on everyone else.
"I'm sure there's good things in it, but six people can't agree to something that will bind the Congress," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the Senate majority whip.
"It's my job to count votes, and we need to have more than six votes for a proposal," Cornyn said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that there is no deal yet on immigration. "However, we still think we can get there," she said.
In addition to Flake and Graham, the bipartisan group includes Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., all of whom have worked on immigration issues for several years and hail from states with large immigrant populations.
According to details provided by aides, the deal would allow DACA recipients a minimum 10-year path to citizenship and allocate at least $1.5 billion for design and construction of a border fence as well as at least $1 billion more for additional border surveillance, technology and manpower; specify that parents of DACA recipients would be ineligible for citizenship; and replace the diversity lottery program with a new system dividing the visas between people who have received temporary protected status and people selected on the basis of merit from low-immigration countries.
Graham and Durbin presented details of the plan to the president and a handful of conservative Republicans at a hastily arranged Oval Office meeting, where Trump made his insulting remarks, including the outburst about Haiti because of its participation in the TPS program along with El Salvador and Nicaragua, several aides said. The surprise meeting, which Graham and Durbin had sought, angered senior Republican leaders and conservatives who are eager to fulfill Trump's campaign pledges on immigration and control floor debate on the issue. But any attempt to pass immigration and border security legislation will require Democratic support in the closely-divided Senate.
Democratic votes will also be needed to keep the government open – which is why Democrats, under intense pressure from immigrant advocates, are determined to use their leverage to force a long-sought immigration deal.
Graham wouldn't say how the president responded, but he said that coming up with bipartisan support in the coming days "will matter to the president."
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., however, an immigration hard-liner and ally of Trump who also attended the Oval Office meeting, said that the bipartisan plan "is unacceptable" because of how it deals with ending the diversity lottery program and with family-based migration policy, a practice that conservatives deride as "chain migration."
"It doesn't end chain migration," Cotton said of the bipartisan plan. "It merely delays it for an extremely small class of persons. On the diversity lottery, it simply takes all those visas and gives them away to other people for no rhyme or reason, it doesn't just end the diversity lottery."
Cotton added that the group's border security proposal "doesn't give near enough resources to meet the president's demands."
Told of Cotton's public criticisms, Graham snapped back: "Sen. Cotton can present his proposal. We presented ours. I'm not negotiating with Sen. Cotton, and let me know when Sen. Cotton has a proposal that gets a Democrat. I'm dying to look at it."
Flake added that "I don't think we'll get all Republicans – I never thought that."
Meanwhile, other Republicans have released a flurry of new legislation in recent days designed to placate concerns of conservatives wary of a potential bipartisan deal.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and Reps. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, and Martha McSally, R-Ariz., on Wednesday unveiled a conservative plan that would grant dreamers an opportunity to apply for a legal residency that would be renewed every three years. Democrats and some Republicans reject such a plan.
The bill also would authorize construction of border walls and fencing; allow federal immigration and security agencies to hire at least 10,000 new agents; end the diversity lottery program; end the ability of new U.S. citizens to legally move family members into the United States; withhold federal funding from cities that refuse to help federal agencies enforce immigration laws; and intensify use of the E-Verify system to check an employee's immigration status.
Privately, aides to GOP leaders say the bill would not be able to pass in the House.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., on the other hand, whose Denver-area district is being closely targeted by Democrats this year, introduced a bill to grant permanent legal residency to people protected by TPS. It is unclear whether it might ever earn a vote.
The Washington Post's David Nakamura and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.