United States president Donald Trump said on Sunday that a programme that protects immigrants who were taken to America illegally as children is “probably dead”, casting a cloud over already tenuous negotiations days before a deadline on a government funding deal that Democrats have tied to immigration.
The issue is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme created by president Barack Obama to shield hundreds of thousands of these individuals, known as Dreamers, from deportation. Mr Trump, who has taken a hard stand against illegal immigration, announced last year that he will end the programme unless congress comes up with a solution by March.
“DACA is probably dead because the Democrats don’t really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our military,” the Republican president tweeted. “I, as president, want people coming into our country who are going to help us become strong and great again, people coming in through a system based on MERIT. No more Lotteries! #AMERICA FIRST.”
Republicans and Democrats were already at odds over funding the government, and the negotiations became more complicated after Democrats – whose votes are needed to pass a government funding bill – insisted immigration be included. The funding expires midnight on Friday without a deal in place, and some government functions will begin to shut down.
Further roiling the talks are comments by the president during an Oval Office meeting in which he questioned the need to admit more Haitians to the US, along with Africans from 's***hole countries', according to people briefed on the conversation. He also said he would prefer immigrants from countries like Norway instead. The White House has not denied Mr Trump's comments.
The president also rejected as insufficient an immigration deal drafted by the bipartisan group of lawmakers who attended that meeting. The deal had included a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers that would take up to 12 years, as well as $1.6 billion for border security, including Mr Trump’s promised wall along the US-Mexico border. Mr Trump’s staunchest supporters consider any route to citizenship for the Dreamers as amnesty for lawbreakers.
The president has said any deal must include funding for the wall as well as changes to make the immigration system more merit-based.
The debate over DACA’s fate came as lawmakers were forced to answer questions about whether Mr Trump is racist.
Representative Mia Love, the first black female Republican in congress and the daughter of Haitian immigrants, denounced Mr Trump's comments as racist and called on him to apologise. "I think that would show real leadership," she said on CNN's State of the Union show on Sunday.
Republican senator David Perdue, who was at Thursday’s Oval Office meeting, insisted on Sunday that Mr Trump did not say ‘s***hole’ in referring to African countries.
"I am telling you that he did not use that word. And I'm telling you it's a gross misrepresentation," Mr Perdue said on ABC's This Week. He said senators Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham were mistaken in indicating earlier that was the case.
Mr Perdue and Republican senator Tom Cotton had previously issued a statement saying they "do not recall the president saying those comments specifically." Mr Cotton said Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation that he "didn't hear" the vulgar word used.
Homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who was nominated by Mr Trump and who also attended Thursday’s meeting at the Oval Office, said, “I don’t recall that specific phrase being used.”
Ms Nielsen did dispute, however, Mr Trump’s assertion that DACA was “probably dead”.
“I do not believe DACA is dead,” Ms Nielsen said on Fox News on Sunday. She said that the bipartisan proposal rejected by Mr Trump did not address core security issues facing her department and that Mr Trump's administration was not interested in “half measures”.
Mr Perdue said that “the potential is there” for a deal to protect the Dreamers but that Democrats needed to get serious.
Democrat senator Michael Bennet defended the agreement as a "principled compromise" on NBC's Meet the Press and said, "I hope people will explore it."