A man wrapped in a Honduran flag passes a cordon of military police outside a shelter for migrants in Piedras Negras, Mexico, near the US border, where about 1,700 migrants travelling by caravan reached the US-Mexican border on Sunday. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Congressional efforts to reach a border security deal before another government shutdown broke down Sunday over Democratic demands to limit the detention of unauthorised immigrants, as President Donald Trump moved more troops to the border and prepared to rally supporters in Texas on Monday.

The 17 House and Senate negotiators had hoped to finalise a border security agreement on Monday, but hours before that deadline, communications had stopped, lawmakers and aides said.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration was moving on its own to fortify the south-western border with thousands of active-duty military troops. The number of deployed troops on the Mexican border was set to exceed the high of 5,900 reached around the November elections, as about 3,700 active-duty troops were being sent to assist with the Department of Homeland Security’s border patrol efforts.

Senior officers are voicing greater worries that the deployed troops are not conducting the missions and training needed for their regular missions, while other military units must now pick up the routine duties on behalf of their deployed colleagues.

But efforts to reach a broader, bipartisan deal on border security bogged down, days before much of the government is set to run out of funds at midnight Friday, with memories of the 35-day partial government shutdown — the nation’s longest in history — still fresh.

“I’ll say 50-50 we get a deal,” Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said on ‘Fox News Sunday’. “The spectre of a shutdown is always out there.”

Crux of impasse

The impasse appears to centre on Democratic demands for a limit on the number of unauthorised immigrants already in the country who could be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, according to aides familiar with the talks. Democrats say a cap of 16,500 beds in ICE detention centres would force the Trump administration to focus on detaining unauthorised immigrants with criminal records instead of using indiscriminate sweeps that drag in otherwise law-abiding residents.

“For far too long, the Trump administration has been tearing communities apart with its cruel immigration policies,” Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, Democrat from California and one of the negotiators, said Sunday. “A cap on ICE detention beds will force the Trump administration to prioritise deportation for criminals and people who pose real security threats, not law-abiding immigrants who are contributing to our country.”

Republicans demanded an exception to the cap for criminals, according to an aide familiar with the negotiations. Democrats declined, saying their 16,500-bed cap left more than enough room for real criminals.

But just days after he used his State of the Union address to take an uncompromising line on a border wall, Trump was being challenged on a new front in the immigration wars. The president took to Twitter on Sunday afternoon to say Democratic negotiators “are behaving, all of a sudden, irrationally.”

“They don’t even want to take muderers into custody! What’s going on?” he said, a charge that Democrats called categorically false.

Fissures in both parties

The looming deadline is exposing fissures in both parties. The more liberal members of the Democratic caucus, many of whom ran on abolishing ICE altogether, have been lobbying their colleagues on the committee to resist any increases in ICE funding.

Democratic negotiators held a conference call Sunday morning to discuss options, according to a Democratic aide, but did not settle on a final decision on how to move forward. Another short-term spending bill could prevent a lapse in funding on Friday, though lawmakers have expressed reluctance at punting again on a final agreement.

Still, Shelby and Senator Jon Tester, Democrat from Montana and a member of the negotiating committee, said Sunday that they had not given up.

Other sticking points remain, including how much money to allocate for barriers at the border. Lawmakers were eyeing between $1.3 billion and $2 billion (Dh4.77 billion and Dh7.34 billion), far less than the $5.7 billion that the president demanded for his signature campaign promise — and shut down the government over in December.

Trump, who has vacillated between publicly condemning the talks as a “waste of time” and privately showing flexibility, blamed Democratic leadership for the breakdown.

“I don’t think the Dems on the Border Committee are being allowed by their leaders to make a deal,” he wrote on Twitter. “They are offering very little money for the desperately needed Border Wall & now, out of the blue, want a cap on convicted violent felons to be held in detention!”

Pentagon and administration officials spent the weekend preparing for another partial government shutdown — and for the possibility that the president will fulfill his threat to declare a national emergency and fund the wall without Congress. Lawmakers from both parties have expressed extreme discomfort with the prospect of a national emergency declaration, and there is almost universal aversion to another shutdown.

One proposal circulating among some White House officials in an attempt to fend off legal challenges to an emergency declaration is to claim that the wall would be built to protect the more than 6,000 active-duty and National Guard troops now operating near the southwestern border or deploying there soon.

“The Wall will get built one way or the other!” Trump wrote on Twitter on Saturday afternoon.

During the last lapse in funding, hundreds of thousands of workers were either furloughed or worked without pay, and it cost the US economy $11 billion. Another shutdown would hit some agencies at an even worse time. The Internal Revenue Service, for instance, is just entering tax season.

Lawmakers held out the possibility that Trump could find some face-saving way to fortify border security and build some structures without resorting to a precedent-setting emergency declaration. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, said the president had asked him to “comb through the law” and “go find money in any place we could” to fully fund a wall.

“There’s pots of money where presidents, all presidents, have access to without a national emergency,” Mulvaney said on NBC’s Meet the Press.