Democratic leaders in the House and Senate confronted White House chief of staff John Kelly Tuesday night over his claim that Dreamers who didn't enroll in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program were "too lazy to get off their ass."
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and other Democrats challenged Kelly to explain his remarks during his meeting with the four congressional deputy leaders on immigration. They are trying to find an agreement to legislate a new DACA program and also deal with GOP demands to secure the border.
"We kind of challenged him on that today," Durbin told reporters after the meeting. "He took exception to the comment that these potential DACA applicants were just lazy, and he and the general had an exchange on it. I think these are some of the hardest-working and most inspiring young people I've ever run into, and I don't think they were lazy."
"It was scary for them to step up and sign up," Durbin said of Dreamers who did not enroll in DACA. "Some of their parents begged them not to. I think that was the predominant reason why such a large number didn't sign up."
A Hoyer spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the meeting.
Kelly's comments came Tuesday when he was discussing why only 690,000 Dreamers signed up for the program. The Trump administration has proposed that 1.8 million Dreamers benefit from a new program, in exchange for wall funding, an end to the visa lottery, and curtailing chain migration.
The meeting was the latest turn in the immigration debate as lawmakers prepare to bring bills up next week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is set to take up immigration on the Senate floor next as part of his deal to end the government shutdown two weeks ago.
But there's no agreement, and next week's votes are therefore not expected to result in any bill that can pass in the House, even if something can pass in the Senate. It's also not clear what base bill McConnell will bring up, and McConnell himself has said the plan is to let the Senate "work its will."
“I can't be specific because there's no secret plan here to try to push this in any direction,” McConnell said Tuesday. “And the Senate's going to work its will. And I hope that we will end up passing something. I'd rather deal with the issue.”
Democrats remain incensed by the GOP proposal to curtail chain migration — they dispute the term and call it "family reunification." The White House's proposal would allow for spouses and minor children to be sponsored by the Dreamers to receive family-based green cards, leading to a major cut into legal immigration. The current system also allows parents, siblings, and children over 21 to be eligible.
The White House, meanwhile, is continuing to push proposal to give 1.8 million Dreamers a path to citizenship, which they still believe is an attractive offer despite widespread opposition within the Democratic ranks. Kelly referred to Trump as the "champion" of the 1.8 million Dreamers who would receive protection and a pathway under their proposal.
"I'm telling you — it is stunning that when the president decided where he was going to go on DACA, when the Congress, both sides of the aisle, for years couldn't get their arms around this problem, he said 'Who are all the of the people out there that could have signed up?'" Kelly said. "The astonishing thing to most people is he also included a path to citizenship that was almost never even asked for by anyone."
At the moment, however, hopes are not high in the Senate among those who continue to push for a deal. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., indicated that the only path forward could be a one or two-year extension of the DACA program.
"I'm coming in increasingly pessimistic about immigration," Graham said while leaving the weekly Republican policy lunch. "I don't think we're going to do a whole lot beyond something like the BRIDGE Act and some border security. It's just too many moving parts."
"That will be a punt, that will not be winning for the country, but that's most likely where we're going to go," Graham said.
Despite Graham's pessimism, multiple working groups continue to meet on the topic, including the four deputy leaders, although no meetings are on the books at the moment.
"We're still talking, so that's progress," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.