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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

White House backtracks on Trump refusal to sign immigration bill

The measure would end the administration’s policy of separating immigrant children

Border Patrol agents on horses apprehend a man who illegally crossed into the US from Mexico in Sunland Park, New Mexico, US. Adrees Latif/ Reuters
Border Patrol agents on horses apprehend a man who illegally crossed into the US from Mexico in Sunland Park, New Mexico, US. Adrees Latif/ Reuters

The White House backtracked on Friday hours after President Donald Trump threw House Republican efforts to pass an immigration bill into confusion by saying he wouldn’t sign a compromise they reached after weeks of talks.

The president was talking about a separate petition effort to force votes on immigration when he made his comment in a television interview, White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement.

The president had told House Speaker Paul Ryan earlier in the week that he would back the compromise plan. It’s one of two proposals the House is preparing to vote on next week under pressure from GOP moderates facing potentially tough races in the November congressional elections.

The compromise measure would, among other things, end the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from parents when they illegally cross the US border. The other, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, would impose more hardline limits on immigration.

“The president fully supports both the Goodlatte bill and the House leadership bill," Mr Shah said in a statement about eight hours after Mr Trump spoke in an interview on Fox News. "In this morning’s interview, he was commenting on the discharge petition in the House, and not the new package. He would sign either the Goodlatte or the leadership bills,” the spokesman said.

However, the question posed to Mr Trump on Friday morning was about the two bills that GOP leaders planned to advance next week, and not the unsuccessful effort by some Republican moderates to force votes on four separate proposals.

"I’m looking at both of them. I certainly wouldn’t sign the more moderate one," Mr Trump said on Fox News.

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The president’s statement threatened to blow up the deal, and many House Republicans said Mr Trump’s comments undercut any effort to get a bill passed.

Republicans in Congress are showing growing unease with the rising number of family separations, which has begun generating public backlash. Mr Ryan and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn both said on Thursday that legislative action is needed to keep families together.

“I hate the children being taken away," Mr Trump said during an impromptu media appearance on Friday morning on the White House lawn, blaming without evidence federal law and Democrats for the policy his Justice Department initiated.

The legislation backed by Republican moderates includes a provision that would explicitly prohibit the Homeland Security Department from releasing children who cross with their parents to anyone other than a parent or legal guardian.

House Republicans said they were given assurances earlier this week by Stephen Miller, the main architect of the administration’s approach on immigration, that Mr Trump supported bringing the two versions of immigration legislation to a vote.

Before the White House walked back the president’s remarks, several lawmakers expressed disappointment. Representative Mike Coffman, a moderate Republican from a competitive Colorado district, said, "The president needs to read the bill," adding that Trump was just "responding to the word ‘moderate’."

“I thought this was the bill the White House was analysing in a positive fashion,” said another GOP moderate, Leonard Lance of New Jersey.

Earlier this week Mr Ryan touted the compromise bill as something that could actually become law because it includes provisions allowing legal status for young undocumented immigrants, money for a wall at the US border with Mexico, and cuts to legal immigration Mr Trump said must be included in a bill he would sign.

Anti-immigration hardliner Steve King of Iowa said he spoke to White House officials on Thursday night and urged them to get Trump to oppose the compromise bill.

“The president knows that amnesty for DACA recipients is not part of his mandate,” said Mr King, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from being deported.

Mr Trump tweeted on Friday that "Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration" -- all elements that are addressed in the compromise GOP plan.

Republican Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho -- speaking before the White House clarified the president’s remarks -- said the measure is likely doomed either way.

“I don’t think either bill makes it out of the House,” Mr Simpson said. “It’s a tough damn issue."

Mr Simpson said that Mr Trump weighing in on legislation off the cuff has become a major headache for congressional Republicans, citing his shifting positions on the massive budget plan approved earlier this year.

“At this point I would not put a final ‘this bill will not ever see floor action’ banner across the top,” said Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chairman of the conservative Republican House Freedom Caucus. Meadows said he is broadly supportive of the bill’s outline.

About two dozen Republicans -- frustrated with the president’s unpredictability -- have joined Democrats in signing a petition that would force a vote on four immigration proposals, including those favoured by Democrats. The petition is just two signatures short of the number needed to require the votes.

Mr Trump blamed Democrats on Friday for the policy of taking children from their parents, saying, "The Democrats have to change their law, that’s their law."

But White House officials haven’t been able to cite any part of US law that requires the policy, which was initiated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president, his aides and congressional Republicans have given differing rationales for it: Sessions and Chief of Staff John Kelly said children were being taken away as a deterrent while Republicans in Congress recently said it’s based on a 1997 court settlement regarding the treatment of immigrant children in federal custody.

No prior administration interpreted the ruling in the way Mr Trump’s has, and some legal experts say the 1997 settlement doesn’t require children to be separated from their parents.

Children who arrive with their parents are being sent to temporary government shelters while their parents go through a legal process. Republicans in the Senate said Thursday they may seek separate legislation to end the practice. The House moderate plan would state that a minor who doesn’t arrive at the border unaccompanied must be released to a parent or legal guardian.

Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told reporters the administration is "skirting the rules" to separate children from their parents.

"And where are the Republicans?" Mr Gutierrez said. "I don’t see them. I see them scared of the president’s itchy trigger finger, and afraid to stand up to a bully because they are scared of losing their jobs."

When House Republicans released the compromise immigration measure on Thursday, even supporters said it didn’t yet have enough support to pass the House. The bill includes other provisions almost certain to be rejected by Democrats, including money for a border wall and new limits on family-based immigration.