Miami Republican Mario Diaz-Balart said on Tuesday that an agreement on DACA was still possible this week. But for that to happen it would be unwise to comment or satisfy the media’s curiosity about what President Donald Trump said at a controversial immigration meeting at the White House last week.
Diaz-Balart is the only Florida member of Congress who was at the meeting in which Trump allegedly used the term “shithole countries” in reference to some African nations and Haiti. The representative for district 25 insisted that it was not his policy to comment on private meetings.
“Obviously you cannot say what is said in private meetings,” Diaz-Balart said. “I have not done it in 30 years and I’m not going to do it now.”
The offensive remark, which has been denied by Trump but confirmed by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who was also present at the meeting, has generated a wave of outrage across the country and in South Florida, home of a large Haitian community.
Other Florida lawmakers were among the first to denounce Trump’s alleged comments as racist, including Miami Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“The words of President Trump are unacceptable, racist,” she said Tuesday before gathering with other lawmakers for a congressional hearing in Miami. “He is clearly saying ... that he would like to have more immigrants from Norway, a country that has 83 percent white population. This is the same president who said a few months ago that all Haitians in Miami have AIDS.
“He has a record of saying racist things,” Ros-Lehtinen added.
“If anyone says that, I not only do not agree but I think that offends unnecessarily,” said Senator Marco Rubio, who clarified that he was not at the meeting and has not discussed the issue with colleagues. “Those are comments that I do not support, they are counterproductive, no matter who would say them.”
After being at the receiving end of criticism for withholding comment, Diaz-Balart suggested that political pragmatism and his interest in avoiding the deportation of thousands of immigrants were behind his decision not to confirm or deny Trump’s offensive remark.
“I fight for my community every day ... Unfortunately there is only one person from our community who is in these serious, very difficult and delicate negotiations to try to avoid the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said. “I’m not going to endanger those 800,000 people to go into accusations.”
A bipartisan congressional group is negotiating with the White House for the legal protection of 800,000 so-called dreamers, undocumented young people brought to the United States as children.
The dreamers now face possible deportation following Trump’s September decision to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection program — known as DACA — for these immigrants. He gave Congress until March to reach a solution. The agreement, currently under negotiation, is tied to the annual fiscal budget, which should be approved before Friday to avoid a government shutdown.
Even though Trump posted on Twitter that “DACA is probably dead” and that Durbin “blew DACA,” an agreement is still possible, said Diaz-Balart.
“There has to be an agreement but to achieve it you have to sit down privately and speak in a calm way to solve problems. Problems are not solved with accusations, allegations and press interviews, they are solved with negotiations,” he said.
Democrats in Congress have already threatened to shut down the government if an agreement on dreamers is not reached, a controversial option previously used by Republicans with former President Barack Obama.
“You can’t shut down the government over DACA,” Rubio said. “The deadline is in March, not Friday of this week. One of the implications of doing so is that the government will not be able to process the permits that people are applying for, so it’s almost counterproductive.”
Rubio said that those interested in reaching a permanent agreement on the legal status of dreamers will have to accept some of the changes that the president is asking for. Trump has conditioned the legal protection of dreamers to the approval of funding for the construction of a border wall and changes in family reunification programs, which he refers to as “chain migration.”
But other Republicans have said they will vote “no” to the budget if there is no agreement, including Ros-Lehtinen. The congresswoman said she was optimistic about the possible signing of an agreement on DACA. Otherwise, she said, “it is not a surprise to Congress leaders and the president that I am going to vote no.”
The three Cuban American legislators — Diaz-Balart, Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen — gathered in Miami to attend a House hearing on Obama’s “failed” policy toward Cuba.
At the beginning of the hearing, chaired by Florida Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis, Ros-Lehtinen praised Diaz-Balart: “If — and I know that this will happen — the dreamers get a permanent legislative fix, it would be thanks to a lot of people but number one on that list would be the name of Mario Diaz-Balart.”
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres