The caucuses that represent the diversity of Congress have been heavily pressuring Democratic leadership to reject President Donald Trump's efforts to do away with immigration programs, they believe, based on racial motivations.
Then came a report Thursday that Trump had asked in an immigration meeting why the US would take immigrants from "shithole countries."
44% of diversity lottery visas go to African countries
Trump denigrated immigrants from impoverished countries in a meeting on immigration
Sensitivities had already been running high within the Democratic caucus about the President's requirements to end the diversity visa lottery program and cut family-based migration categories as components of any deal to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Though Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican who has long sought compromise on immigration reform, characterized ending the diversity lottery program and reallocating the visas as "easier" than any of the other components, lawmakers who are part of Hispanic and African-American groups say the reality is far from it.
"It is misconstrued and misunderstood, and I think that it's patently unfair and really discriminatory," Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a CBC member, said of the attacks on the program.
Trump has maligned the diversity visa program as selecting countries' "worst people" and "really the worst of the worst" -- an incorrect statement. The program allots 50,000 visas per year to individuals chosen by random selection, who enter the lottery in countries that otherwise send the fewest immigrants to the US. Every individual who receives a visa must meet some education and work requirements and be fully vetted and interviewed for security risks or other concerns before they are allowed to come to the US with permanent residency. Trump has pointed to a handful of recent terrorist attacks in the US that were committed by immigrants who came to the US either in connection with the diversity visa lottery or family migration, but evidence against them shows they were radicalized in the US and there is no statistical evidence that such immigrants are any more dangerous than the general population.
While the program is relatively small and many Democrats agree it could use an overhaul, lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus are especially concerned about its targeting because 44% of the visas go to the African continent, with Europe representing only about one-third of the visas, and the program remains important to allowing Africans to immigrate to the US.
Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, whose Colorado district has a sizable immigrant population and who has fought for immigration reform, said that in a recent visit home he visited an Ethiopian church and got an earful from the minister about the importance of the diversity lottery to their community.
"Targeting that -- what's the motivation to target that other than where the visa is coming from? I'll be blunt about that," said Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who's a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
United in pressuring leadership
The issue, Grijalva said, has united the tri-caucus groups -- a term for the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Asian Pacific American Caucus. Not only have the groups been sticking together in advancing each other's priorities in immigration talks, they've been meeting regularly with Democratic leadership to make sure their communities' concerns are represented.
"Part of the coalition that has kept the issue of immigration reform comprehensive, fighting for DACA and all that, has been a very important coalition that's included members of the black caucus," Grijalva said. "And to them, this is a priority. And if there's no other reason other than to keep this coalition strong and vibrant, I think the rest of us need to and must not give that away."
"We are extremely excited about the unity of the tri-caucus," Jackson Lee said. "I'm hoping our voices are very strong. This is not going to be pleasant. We want to deal with Dreamers, let's deal with Dreamers, (and then) we can thoughtfully assess how to best put a comprehensive initiative on the table."
According to a source familiar, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has met daily with the CBC recently and is "doing her best" to balance concerns from her base with the tradeoffs that will come in any compromise. She is working to make sure their voices are heard and that someone is fighting for their interests.
On the Senate side, the No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, included a deal on the diversity lottery in his compromise proposal that was rebuffed by the President on Thursday. With input from the CBC, the deal reallocated the lottery visas into 25,000 to protected individuals who have had their Temporary Protected Status ended by this administration and 25,000 that would still go to underrepresented countries like those in Africa, according to multiple sources familiar.
It was during that conversation, as Durbin was explaining that TPS protected people from countries like Haiti and El Salvador, that Trump responded with vulgarity.
"Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?" Trump said, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the comments, and multiple sources familiar with the conversation. CNN reports that Trump later added, according to a source familiar with the meeting: "Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out."
The comments quickly drew widespread condemnation from Democrats and lawmakers of color.
The White House did not deny the remarks, saying in a statement that the President fights for Americans as opposed to foreign countries.
Earlier in the day, Pelosi raised eyebrows in calling current immigration negotiators -- the No. 2's in each party in each chamber and the White House chief of staff -- "the five white guys."