President Donald Trump on Monday will propose a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — a key concession to Democrats that he hopes will win their support for a massive border wall with Mexico.
In a call with White House surrogates and Hill staffers Thursday afternoon, senior White House adviser Stephen Miller outlined the new framework, which also calls for dramatic restrictions on legal immigration as well as $25 billion for border security.
Miller said the outline represented “a compromise position that we believe… will get 60 votes in the Senate” and “a framework that ultimately will lead to passage of a law.” Another senior administration official told POLITICO the White House hoped legislation fleshing out those principles would hit the Senate floor as early as the first week of February. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement that he hoped lawmakers “will look to this framework for guidance as they work towards an agreement.”
The proposal, however, could complicate ongoing negotiations between a bipartisan group of senators who have been meeting frequently to discuss their own accord on immigration. Indeed, Democrats blasted the framework Thursday night, even as it displeased some conservatives.
“We cannot allow the lives of young people who have done everything right to be used as bargaining chips for sweeping anti-immigrant policies,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, who called it “shameful” that the White House would seek “such extreme concessions.”
Meanwhile, Michael A. Needham, CEO of the conservative Heritage Action, warned, “Amnesty comes in many forms, but it seems they all eventually grow in size and scope. Any proposal that expands the amnesty-eligible population risks opening pandora’s box, and could lead to a Gang of Eight style negotiation. That should be a non-starter.”
Miller, an immigration hard-liner, said on the call that the White House proposal would establish a $25 billion trust fund for a border defense system, including a wall along the Mexican border — a key campaign promise made by President Donald Trump that he has repeatedly indicated must be included in a final deal. That money would also go toward technology and security at the Canadian border.
The framework also eliminates the visa lottery and curbs U.S. migration by extended families, a fundamental change to existing immigration policy. New citizens would be able to sponsor their immediate families — spouses and children — to legally enter the country, but other relatives, such as parents and siblings, would be excluded. The administration would continue to allow people who have already applied for entry to be processed under the old system.
The changes to family-based immigration go further than what the Senate’s Gang of Eight proposed under the Obama administration in 2013; that measure, which gave the broader undocumented population a pathway to citizenship, only cut off the ability for citizens to sponsor siblings.
The White House will also ask for additional money to hire more U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents as well as immigration judges, attorneys and prosecutors. And the administration will propose closing what the official called legal “loopholes” that “make it almost impossible to deport those immigrants who show up illegally.”
As a sweetener to Democrats, the White House plan would allow an estimated 1.8 million Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, to apply for legal status, remain in the country, and possibly seek citizenship. That’s more than double the roughly 700,000 people protected under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA.
Speaker Paul Ryan’s office applauded the proposal Wednesday.
“We’re grateful for the president showing leadership on this issue and believe his ideas will help us ultimately reach a balanced solution” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for Ryan.
Indeed, many Hill Republican leaders have been imploring the White House to deliver a detailed proposal to Capitol Hill, hoping the White House would give them cover from conservatives who see any DACA fixes as “amnesty.”
That may be a pipe-dream. Conservatives in the House have been pushing for a more conservative bill that goes well beyond the president’s proposal. The legislation, sponsored by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, would mandate companies verify the legal status of everyone they hire, under a system known as E-verify, and crack down on sanctuary cities. The proposal also does not give DACA recipients a path to citizenship but requires them to reapply for their deferred status every three years.
In a sign that the right may ultimately back the plan, conservative GOP Sen. Tom Cotton praised the proposal Thursday as “generous and humane, while also being responsible.”
Trump re-injected himself into the immigration debate Wednesday, stopping into a background briefing with reporters to say that he supported a path to citizenship for Dreamers “over a period of 10 to 12 years.” Miller called that element of the proposal “the most substantial concession” from the White House to Democrats.
“The president has indicated a willingness to extend citizenship to 1.8 million individuals as part of this immigration reform package,” Miller said. “That would be the DACA population, plus individuals who failed to apply for DACA but otherwise met the requirements, as well as adjustments in timeframe that would bring the total maximum population size to 1.8 million.”
Before the president’s proposal was made public, there was a feeling of cautious optimism among a growing bipartisan group of senators, which continued meeting on Thursday. Developed ahead of the government shutdown, the clutch of several dozen senators is now morphing into an immigration discussion group.
On Thursday, before the White House plan was released, senators in that group said that while they welcome Trump’s input, they aren’t going to try to triangulate a bill based on what they think he will eventually sign. That means the framework that the White House formally sends over on Monday may not dictate where the Senate starts in February, when McConnell has pledged to hold an immigration debate.
“The Senate needs to be the Senate,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). Trump’s latest set of concepts is “input, but it’s input from one person. That’s input from one branch of government.”
“We’ll have to interact with the president. The Senate needs to lead. We’re trying to get 70 votes. If you get 70 votes in the Senate, it helps with the House and the president,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.
Changes to the legal immigration system are likely to face the stiffest resistance from Democrats. While they don’t want to provide money for Trump’s wall, it may not be a deal-breaker.
“I don’t think that’s the best way to spend money but look if I can get protection for Dreamers, I’m prepared to do some things that I don’t think are exactly the best,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.)
Separate from the bipartisan group, senior Republican senators are meeting among themselves to plot a more conservative approach than is likely to emerge from the bipartisan group. And some in the GOP argue that looking at the Senate as a silo will ultimately backfire.
“At the end of the day, our success is not getting a bill voted out of the Senate. It’s getting a bill to the president’s desk,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). in an interview.
Trump has already complicated the immigration talks significantly. First he told a large group of Congress members earlier this month to send him something to sign, then two days later rejected a deal cut by Graham and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
And now, after a few days out of the debate, Trump has reinserted himself. That could be bad news for senators who were banking on Trump supporting whatever can get 60 votes in the Senate.
“I welcome when he says the right thing. But I know the next day he might be 180 degrees different,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in an interview. “We’ve got to get him to sign something right after he says the right thing.”
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