The White House meeting Tuesday over immigration policy and border security hit home for the three participants from Texas: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo.
All three are critical players in forging a bill in the coming days that will address the expiring program that shields from deportation young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, as well as border security and legal immigration programs. Texas is home to the second highest number of so-called Dreamers in the country and the state has the longest stretch of border with Mexico — 1,254 miles of the 2,000-mile border.
“It was one of the most extraordinary meetings certainly that I’ve participated in here in Washington, where the press was not only invited in at the beginning but stayed, and stayed, and stayed, as we had a chance to talk about our views,” said Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate. “My conclusion from all this is that everybody in the room, on a bipartisan, bicameral basis wants to get to a solution, and that’s the first step.”
The roughly two dozen lawmakers who met with the president are set to meet again today, Cuellar told the American-Statesman, to work toward a deal by Jan. 19, the latest deadline for funding the federal government. The other looming deadline is the March 5 expiration of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“I actually feel positive or optimistic that we can get this done,” Cuellar said.
Democrats must weigh whether to support a border wall in return for deportation relief and Republicans must decide if allowing Dreamers, those immigrants with DACA status, to stay in the U.S. amounts to amnesty.
And if there was a message that President Donald Trump wanted to make sure everyone received Tuesday, it was that he still wants a border wall.
“You need the wall,” Trump told Cuellar, who had dismissed it as ineffective in stopping drugs or visa overstays. “And I will tell you this, the ICE officers and the Border Patrol agents — I had them just recently on — they say, if you don’t have the wall — you know, in certain areas, obviously, that aren’t protected by nature — if you don’t have the wall, you cannot have security. You just can’t have it. It doesn’t work.”
Cuellar was blunt: “I always get a kick out of people that go down and spend a few hours (at the border) and think they know the border better than some of us there.”
Trump, who made the wall a central campaign issue and who was endorsed by the Border Patrol agents union, appeared to soften his stance on the wall, saying that he didn’t envision a continuous physical barrier.
“Now, that doesn’t mean 2,000 miles of wall because you just don’t need that because of nature, because of mountains and rivers and lots of other things,” Trump said. “But we need a certain portion of that border to have the wall.”
Many border region officials, including U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, have long argued against building a wall in rugged, remote areas of West Texas, including the Big Bend region.
The Trump administration late last week proposed in budget documents that $18 billion be allocated for 700 miles of border wall — for new construction and improving existing fencing — and Trump said Tuesday that he could do it “for less.” He also said he could build it in a year, bringing it under budget and ahead of schedule.
Congress has been reluctant to fund the wall, with Democrats refusing to go along with GOP efforts, but it is clear that Trump expects backing for his signature issue in exchange for a deal on DACA.
McCaul, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said at the meeting that he and other GOP lawmakers would introduce a bill Wednesday that will be a starting point for debate. McCaul’s bill was approved by his committee in October, which includes $10 billion for building a physical barrier “where practical” and $5 billion to refurbish the ports of entry, of which Texas has 29.
“I’ve been trying to get this border secure for seven terms in Congress,” McCaul said. “I think this is a bipartisan issue. I think DACA is a bipartisan issue. We have an opportunity, I think, before us to get this done for the American people.”
Democrats will be integral to the process, although immigration hard-liner U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said, “Any agreement needs to secure our borders, enact E-Verify legislation to end the illegal jobs magnet, cut chain migration, and bolster interior enforcement against illegal immigration.”