The White House on Sunday night released an aggressive list of priorities for any deal to protect young undocumented immigrants in limbo — a list that could make a deal almost impossible to reach if it is strictly followed.
The Trump administration has asked lawmakers to include tough border security and immigration enforcement measures in any deal to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the administration is ending. Those measures include provisions to make it harder for unaccompanied minors to enter the country illegally, money for the President’s border wall and cuts to legal immigration.
“These priorities are essential to mitigate the legal and economic consequences of any grant of status to DACA recipients,” White House legislative director Marc Short said on a call with reporters. “They fulfill the President’s promise to advance immigration reform that puts the need of American workers first.”
President Donald Trump announced he would end the Obama-era DACA program, which protects young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, at the beginning of last month, but gave Congress a six-month window in which to act to make the program permanent. Trump has repeatedly said he wanted border security measures as part of a deal, but Sunday night was the first time lawmakers were able to see the full list of the White House asks.
The list represents Republican priorities for immigration and border security, such as tightening the standard for asylum protections, beefing up staffing, cracking down on sanctuary cities, expanding the ways would-be immigrants can be rejected and cutting back significantly on the number of ways that immigrants can obtain green cards in the US by restricting family categories and transforming the employment-based system.
While Democrats have signaled an openness to some deal on DACA and border security, many of the proposals alone would be deal-breakers. Democrats are almost certainly needed to pass a bill to clear the filibuster threshold of 60 votes in the Senate and to make up for Republicans in both chambers who may decline to vote for any path to citizenship or legalization for DACA recipients.
What will be key, one Democratic congressional staffer said, is how hard the White House pushes for the wish list.
“Depends on whether they’re serious or just positioning,” the staffer said. “If it’s the latter, and they leave themselves a lot of room to move, then maybe we can still negotiate something. The problem is that they could lock themselves in politically and then not be able to bend.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were quick to pan the list, saying it shows Trump “can’t be serious” about reaching a deal if they start with proposals that are “anathema” to immigrants and Democrats.
“We told the President at our meeting that we were open to reasonable border security measures alongside the DREAM Act, but this list goes so far beyond what is reasonable,” the Democratic leaders said in a statement, referring a dinner they had with Trump at the White House last month. “This proposal fails to represent any attempt at compromise. The list includes the wall, which was explicitly ruled out of the negotiations. If the President was serious about protecting the Dreamers, his staff has not made a good faith effort to do so.”
Included in the laundry list of priorities, which run the virtual gamut of conservative ideology on immigration, are proposals that alone could be deal-breakers for Democrats and some Republicans beyond Trump’s border wall.
Examples include such things as instituting mandatory worker verification for all American employers; increasing criminal penalties for a number of immigration infractions and creating new criminal consequences for others; expanding the ways that immigrants can be found inadmissible to the US and can be deported from the US; vastly expanding ways to circumvent the lengthy court process it takes to deport undocumented immigrants; and restricting asylum and unaccompanied minor protections.
One other major potential sticking point, among many: a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, which Democrats have asked for.
“As we look to legalize the status of DACA recipients, we are not interested in granting citizenship,” a senior administration official said on the call.
While the White House stopped short of issuing a veto threat over the principles, it said it would still “expect Congress to include all” of them in a deal.
“We’re not discussing what’s a veto threat right now, or we’re not looking to negotiate with ourselves,” the official told reporters on the call in response to a question from CNN. “We believe that these are all priorities, they’re all important to the nation’s security, they’re all important to reform the immigration system, and we’re asking Congress to move on them as expeditiously as possible.”
The White House also stressed it believes the President is making a “good faith effort” at bipartisan compromise — noting that it sent the immigration principles to both Democratic and Republican leadership of Congress and relevant committees. The official also pushed back on the notion that the President reneged on a deal with Schumer and Pelosi.
“There was a deal to work on a deal as fast as possible, that’s what the deal was,” said the official, who was present for the dinner.
Short started off the call by noting that members of Congress had asked the President to lay out what he wanted to see in a deal as a starting point for their negotiations.
“Congressional leaders of both parties asked the President for his input and a list of his priorities,” Short said, saying that the White House engaged in a “deliberative process” by asking the various key agencies and law enforcement components to help construct the list.
On the call, Short and leaders from the Department of Homeland Security’s three immigration components — Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and US Citizenship and Immigration Services — all painted in dire terms the consequences of unchecked illegal immigration.
One official spoke of sanctuary policies — a key focus of this administration — as a driver of illegal immigration. The official said sanctuary cities, a catchall term that describes any locality that has some policy limiting engagement in federal immigration enforcement, would be responsible for dangerous border crossings that could result in the abuse of the immigrants attempting the journey, and even fatalities.
The official stressed that smuggling organizations that are almost the only way to get into the US illegally across the Southern border use sanctuary cities as a “sales pitch.”
“That is a huge sales pitch to those folks. And as long as we dangle that carrot of sanctuary cities down there, people are going to continue to die crossing this border,” the official said.
While Trump has Republican supporters on Capitol Hill who have endorsed a similar wish list of measures, even among his own party, lawmakers have pleaded with the White House not to seek a comprehensive immigration reform package before dealing with DACA — for which permits begin expiring March 6. Many of the requests could be difficult for Republicans to swallow as well as Democrats.
In the days leading up to the release, there was frustration that demands by top White House policy adviser Stephen Miller during the process could derail congressional efforts to find a legislative solution, a source familiar with the matter told CNN. The source said Miller injected himself into talks between lawmakers and made the issue more difficult by coming to the table with unreasonable demands on behalf of the White House.
At a hearing in the Senate last week with representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, both Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, who have proposed different DACA measures, implored the officials not to seek a complete immigration deal before any action. Durbin said it was “too much” to “put the burden” on a DACA bill to answer all of the issues on the table.
“It’s too much to ask … and I hope you’ll take that message back,” Durbin said.
Responding to the general principles articulated at the hearing, Tillis said: “It reads like a laundry list for comprehensive immigration reform, and if Congress has proven an extraordinary ability to do anything, it’s to fail at comprehensive immigration reform.”
By Tal Kopan, CNN