Immigration is pressure point for both sides in shutdown showdown

Lawmakers and administration officials on Sunday jostled over messaging on immigration on the ninth day of a partial government shutdown largely prompted by conflict over the issue.

While neither side appears ready to budge over including border wall funding in the bill needed to fund the government, on immigration issues there has been some movement over the past week following the deaths of two migrant children in government custody and the killing of a police officer, the suspect in which is an immigrant in the country illegally.

On Sunday, both Democrats and Republicans, along with White House counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayConservatives pound BuzzFeed, media over Cohen report Trump 2020 campaign manager hits George Conway: 'Think how bad of a husband you have to be' Trump’s polls sag amid wall fight MORE, sought to tread carefully around the recent deaths, but cited the incidents in pushing for an end to the partial shutdown and offered some hints as to what might eventually break the stalemate.

ADVERTISEMENT

The two sides argued over definitions of border security, with Democrats slamming President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Ann Coulter blasts Trump shutdown compromise: ‘We voted for Trump and got Jeb!’ MORE's demand for $5 billion in funding for his proposed border wall. But Conway suggested the impasse over the wall is a "semantic argument" and the president may no longer be pushing for a concrete structure.

Still, GOP lawmakers and Conway stressed that the president's proposed border wall — or something like it — is a necessary tool to secure the border and address underlying immigration issues, while Democrats insisted they would not budge on a wall they described as an ineffective use of money. 

"It is a silly semantic argument because people who just want to say 'wall, wall, wall,' want it to be a four-letter word and not respect what Customs and Border Patrol and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] tell us they need, which is enhancements of the border," Conway said on "Fox News Sunday."

"There may be a wall in some places, there may be steel slats, there may be technological enhancements," she continued. "But always saying wall or no wall is being very disingenuous and turning the complete blind eye to what is a crisis at the border when it comes to the drugs pouring in."

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesTop Judiciary Republican sees potential for bipartisan agreement on cyber issues Black Caucus sees power grow with new Democratic majority New Dem caucus chairman: Some wall is good, but not new wall MORE (D-N.Y.), who was recently elected Democratic caucus chairman, said on ABC's "This Week" that a physical wall is "ineffective" and "medieval," and likened Trump's funding demands to a "ransom note."

"Yes, we need comprehensive immigration reform," Jeffries said. "Yes, we need to enhance border security. But we are not willing to pay $2.5 billion or $5 billion and wasting taxpayer dollars on a ransom note because Donald Trump decided that he was going to shut down the government and hold the American people hostage. That’s unreasonable."

The debate over immigration was further inflamed in the past week following the deaths of a migrant child in government custody and a California police officer.

ADVERTISEMENT

Felipe Gómez Alonzo, 8, died last week after being hospitalized in New Mexico with flu-like symptoms, high fever and vomiting. He had been detained with his father after crossing into the U.S. without documentation.

Gómez died weeks after Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, died from dehydration and shock after being detained with her father after they crossed the border illegally. Attorneys for her family said she did not receive water for hours after being detained, but had been in good health earlier in her journey.

In reaction, the Department of Homeland Security says it is implementing changes to protect the health of migrant children in custody. 

Conway called the deaths an “utter tragedy,” but lamented that Democrats had used the children as “political pawns.”

Her comments came a day after Trump blamed Democrats for the children’s deaths.

“The president does not want these children to come on the perilous journey to begin with,” she said.

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterCentrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter Dems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party MORE (D-Mont.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that the children's deaths are "everybody's fault," and that the White House should lead the way on making comprehensive reforms to the immigration system rather than demanding money for the border wall.

"The bottom line is that if we're able to get comprehensive immigration reform done, which is going to require some leadership in the White House too," Tester said. "Then I think that we will see things settle down in the southern border in a big, big way."

Jeffries said Democrats are willing to provide funding for improved fencing, technology and other resources that experts said will improve border security, as well as assistance for Customs and Border Protection agents.

"We certainly want to enhance the ability of our officials at the Southwest border to conduct themselves in a humane fashion and to avoid the type of tragedies that occurred with Jakelin and Felipe," Jeffries said. "That was unacceptable, un-American and unconscionable and we need to do better."

The head of Customs and Border Protection argued on ABC that agents did "everything they could" to save the children's lives, and called the deaths "absolutely devastating for us on every level."

Kevin McAleenan added that a "multifaceted" approach is needed to address broader immigration issues, with a focus on U.S. laws and investments in Central America to discourage those citizens from trekking to the U.S.

Also in the last week, in California, Cpl. Ronil Singh, 33, was shot and killed early Wednesday morning after he pulled a truck over as part of a DUI investigation. The suspect, Gustavo Perez Arriaga, is an undocumented immigrant. His arrest has led to criticism of California's sanctuary laws.

Conway and House Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseDemocrats will push to retake vote on funding government after chaos on the floor Pelosi pulls State of the Union surprise on Trump House GOP blast Pelosi for suggesting State of the Union delay MORE (R-La.) invoked Singh's death in calling for Democrats to agree to increases for border security.

"There's a lot of different items that relate to border security that we can negotiate about, but let's first recognize this is about securing our border," Scalise said on "Fox News Sunday."

Jeffries, who has been supportive of sanctuary city laws that provide protection for immigrants, called Singh's killing a "very tragic situation." He did not refute a California sheriff's criticism of sanctuary laws, but said such measures have generally improved public safety.

"Clearly, we have to do better in terms of preventing these type of occurrences from taking place, and to keep our law enforcement safe to keep our communities safe," he said. "That’s what Democrats intend to do and will continue to do on a bipartisan fashion."

While the two sides grapple for pressure points to sway the other on immigration issues, negotiations are still stalled and some Congressional leaders are out of town. Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyCentrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter Bipartisan group of senators will urge Trump to reopen government for 3 weeks Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight MORE (R-Ala.) reiterated on Sunday that the Senate would not take up a funding bill unless it contained a "compromise that the president would agree to sign." 

“Our negotiations are at an impasse at the moment. I wish it were not so … but we've got to move away from the blame game," Shelby told "Face the Nation."