WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told reporters Tuesday that he wants immigrants to the United States to “come in from everywhere,” even as his administration doubled down on its calls for scrapping the diversity-based visa lottery program as part of ongoing budget negotiations.
“I want them to come in from everywhere,” Trump said at a White House appearance, alongside Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, after being asked about reports that he told lawmakers last week that he preferred visas be doled out to immigrants from Norway instead of Haiti, El Salvador and Africa.
Questions over Trump’s exact language at an explosive closed-door meeting on immigration reform at the White House on Thursday — where he reportedly described Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” — have stalled bipartisan talks focused on passing a new federal spending plan before Friday to avoid a government shutdown.
Late Tuesday night, House conservatives said there were enough Republican opponents to reject a plan by GOP leaders to prevent a government shutdown because of an impasse over border issues. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said conservatives want the measure to allow additional defense spending.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for lawmakers to focus on passing a budget deal stripped of any provisions for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
Republicans and Democrats have been trying to reach a budget agreement that saves DACA, the Obama-era initiative that provides protected legal status to thousands of young immigrants living in the country illegally.
In his speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, McConnell urged his colleagues to approve a spending bill and return to the DACA issue before the program expires in March.
Complicating those discussions on Tuesday, the Department of Justice announced it was appealing a federal court order issued last week that forced the Trump administration to temporarily reinstate the DACA program, which it had started to phase out months ago.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a statement, argued the administration has the “discretion to rescind this policy with an orderly wind down.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration would still keep pressing for a deal to save DACA via budget negotiations, but she repeated Trump’s position that any deal reached should include funding for the border wall and get rid of the decades-old lottery program that reserves visas for people from countries that have relatively few immigrants in the United States.
“We’ve wasted five days fighting over one word when we should be fighting over the people that are involved in the DACA program,” Sanders said at Tuesday’s daily press briefing, when asked about the exact phrase Trump used to describe the largely black nations on Thursday.
Trump in a Tuesday Twitter post said: “We need to keep America safe, including moving away from a random chain migration and lottery system, to one that is merit-based.”
Underscoring the president’s immigration demands, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security released a joint report Tuesday morning arguing that a visa system overhaul was needed as a matter of national security, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen also championed the president’s wishes in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“He’d like to move away from a country-based quota system to a merit-based system,” Nielsen said of Trump. “It shouldn’t matter where you’re from, it should matter what you can contribute to the United States.”
Nielsen, under oath, told the Senate panel she did not hear Trump’s reported comments at last week’s meeting.
“I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language. Others in the room were also using tough language,” Nielsen said. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the stakeholders who publicly disclosed Trump’s remarks last week, told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday: “I stand by every word I said about what was said and what happened at that meeting.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was also at last week’s meeting and has backed Durbin’s account, urged lawmakers and the White House to focus on reaching a budget deal and preserving the status of those young immigrants protected by DACA, saying the public demands it.
“How does it end? Does it end with the government shutting down?,” Graham told reporters on Capitol Hill. “Does it end with the 700,000 kids thrown to the wolves? No. Does it end without an effort to secure the border? No. So it’s not going to end poorly, it’s going to end well.”