U.S. President Donald Trump began the week proclaiming he wanted to strike a deal on immigration – the bigger, the better. In televised talks with lawmakers, he was flexible and open, raising hopes that a compromise might be possible.
That lasted about 48 hours.
By Thursday, Mr. Trump had reverted to the worst strains in his political rhetoric. At the White House, he questioned why the United States should take immigrants from Haiti as well as from African nations he described as "shithole" countries. His comments stunned the assembled lawmakers, some of whom had arrived to persuade the President to support a fledgling bipartisan immigration deal.
Mr. Trump's incendiary comments and subsequent tweets destabilized the negotiations over the fate of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. And they once again demonstrated his willingness to engage in racially charged statements well beyond the mainstream of U.S. political discourse.
The result was a surreal scene on Friday. After Mr. Trump signed a proclamation in honour of the upcoming public holiday devoted to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., reporters began shouting questions: "Mr. President, will you give an apology for the statement yesterday?" and "Mr. President, are you a racist?" Mr. Trump ignored the queries.
Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois who was at the White House meeting, publicly confirmed on Friday the earlier news reports of Mr. Trump's use of the word "shithole" to refer to entire countries and their inhabitants. Mr. Trump said things that were "hate-filled, vile and racist," Mr. Durbin said. "He said these hateful things and he said them repeatedly."
Faced with a wave a criticism at home and abroad, Mr. Trump engaged in a belated attempt at damage control early Friday. On Twitter, he wrote that "this was not the language used" and denied that he had said "anything derogatory about Haitians." But neither Mr. Trump nor the White House denied the reports detailing his comments when they first emerged a day earlier.
Mr. Durbin said he and a small group of senators from both parties still intend to put forward their compromise bill next week, but he intimated that any future progress would have to come from Congress, not the President. His hope that the White House would support a bipartisan deal "died" in Thursday's meeting, Mr. Durbin said. That means there is a tough road ahead, since finding a solution that Mr. Trump and most Republicans will ratify is crucial to any resolution.
The compromise reached by Mr. Durbin and others incorporates a modified version of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, the measure that gave undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children their "Dreamer" label. The deal would give such immigrants a 10-year path toward citizenship but prevent them from sponsoring their parents.
The proposal also included increased resources for border security and funding for some kind of barrier on the frontier with Mexico. It scaled back a visa lottery program that primarily benefits immigrants from Africa and used the slots to assist people from Haiti and El Salvador who have been living in the United States for years under a separate temporary residence program (the Trump administration recently notified such residents they would have to leave the country).
But the main impetus for the deal is the fate of the Dreamers. These immigrants have lived in a kind of limbo since last year, when Mr. Trump scrapped an Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. There are currently about 700,000 DACA recipients who benefit from temporary work permits and relief from deportation. Since Mr. Trump's decision, more than 14,000 people have seen their protections expire. In early March, that figure will surge. From that point onward, roughly 1,000 people a day are expected to lose their protections.
Next week will bring a new inflexion point. Lawmakers are facing a deadline of Jan. 19 to pass a bill funding the U.S. government and Democrats are pushing to attach a measure protecting Dreamers to the spending package. But given the way negotiations collapsed this week in such rancorous fashion, it is hard to see lawmakers arriving at a consensus ahead of that deadline.
Still, some immigration experts held out hope for an eventual deal, arguing that Mr. Trump's comments had further raised the stakes. "It puts a new kind of pressure on moderate Republicans in particular to think differently about what steps they take next," said Mary Giovagnoli, a former senior official on immigration policy in the Obama administration. Now the negotiations are not simply about the Dreamers, but about "the question of what do we value in this country and who do we welcome."