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Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar On Immigration Policy


In another twist in the debate over DACA, a federal judge in California has issued an order that the Trump administration needs to keep DACA protections in place. These are so - for the so-called DREAMers. DACA is the Obama-era program protecting the status of these young people who were brought into this country illegally. That surprise ruling came just hours after President Trump convened a meeting with Republicans and Democrats yesterday at the White House, trying to broker a deal on immigration. They talked about issues that have long divided lawmakers, not just DACA, but how to reform legal immigration and how to boost border security.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So I'm appealing to everyone in the room to put the country before party, and to sit down, and negotiate and to compromise. And let's see if we can get something done.

MARTIN: There's a timeline for this. Lawmakers have just nine days to reach a deal before the government shuts down. Henry Cuellar is a Democratic congressman from Texas. He represents a district that runs along the border with Mexico. He was at that meeting yesterday at the White House, and he is with us now.

Congressman, thanks so much for being with us.

HENRY CUELLAR: Thank you. And it's a pleasure being with you.

MARTIN: I want to ask you first about this new ruling by a federal judge in California saying DACA protections have to be reinstated. How does this change the debate, if at all?

CUELLAR: Well, I think the court ruling, from what I heard was it's reinstated till the legal proceedings are finished, so it gives us a little bit of time. It might be beyond March 5, but we in the Congress - we're going to be looking like if the deadline is on March 5.

MARTIN: March 5 is the deadline that President Trump established for Congress to come up with some kind of agreement. There's also this other deadline now - the government getting a spending bill through. That's the deadline we're talking about in nine days. Are you any clearer on the president's position on immigration coming out of that meeting than you were going into it?

CUELLAR: Well, in many ways, the president said yes to different people in the room. But the bottom line is, he at the end said that if there is something that we're able to work out, that we will - he would go ahead and sign it. So that allows us to narrow it down to four issues - one, DACA; two, border security. And the press and the Republicans kept saying the wall as a second item, and I kept saying, no, border security - border security, which is different.

And then, of course, the No. 3, No. 4 was what we call chain migration. How many people can a person - let's say that DACA - you have a DACA recipients. How many people can he bring in? Is it the immediate family or is it the grandparents? Is it somebody else beyond that? So that's what we mean by chain migration.

And the last, No. 4 - the fourth issue is what we call diversity, or lottery, visas. There're about 50,000 of those that are allowed to bring in people from countries that usually don't come into the United States, so we decided to narrow it down into phase one, which are those four items. And then the president said, hey, let's do comprehensive immigration reform, which I think took the Republicans that were sitting there by - off guard, as a phase two or longer progress.

MARTIN: So you just outlined a lot there. I want to unpack some of this because you raised this question that was central to the conversation yesterday. Does - what does border security mean? I mean, does that mean that a solution to DACA can't go forward unless the president gets approval for the wall?

CUELLAR: Well...

MARTIN: Are these two linked?

CUELLAR: It depends. Well, the president and the Republicans want to link - they're saying DACA and the wall. What we're saying - well, they're - some Democrats are saying just a clean bill on DACA without border security, the wall. With all due respect to my Democratic friends, it's not going to happen. We got to have DACA and some sensible border security.

The problem is that the Republican and the presidents (ph) equate border security to the wall. And if you notice, I had a little discussion with the president and with the secretary of Homeland on my position about the wall because the wall - it's - you know, GAO did a report on it, and between the years of 2010, 2015, it got breached - the wall that we know of, the GAO knows about - got breached 9,300 times.

MARTIN: Right.

CUELLAR: That means people were able to get over it. And the final thing is, I said - and if you see the interaction I had with the president and the Homeland secretary, I said, look, your own border patrol chief and the other border patrol chiefs have said that a wall will buy you maybe a few minutes or sometimes even a few seconds, so are you going to spend billions of dollars to slow down somebody for a couple minutes? I don't think so.

MARTIN: So you think that there has to be some border security linked to DACA, not necessarily a wall. But let me ask you in closing, do you think this White House has a chance of succeeding where so many others have failed when it comes to passing comprehensive immigration reform?

CUELLAR: Well, first, we're going to focus on a narrow topic called DACA. The other issue is going to be phase two, which is more complicated. The last time we had it was between a Republican president and Democrat Congress. And if you look at the history of immigration reform in the United States, it's got to be bipartisan.

MARTIN: But you're convinced that DACA will happen.

CUELLAR: ...So it's been since Ronald Reagan.

MARTIN: You're convinced DACA will happen.

CUELLAR: I feel optimistic that we could reach an agreement.

MARTIN: Henry Cuellar is a Democratic congressman from Texas. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

CUELLAR: Thank you. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.