Lawmakers who favor a deal to protect some 700,000 young immigrants facing possible deportation because of the end of the Obama administration’s DACA program are seeking to drive a wedge between President Trump and hard-liners on his staff, launching appeals directly to a president who they see as potentially sympathetic to people brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
In his public comments, Trump has shown an unwillingness to be boxed in by his most hard-line advisors on immigration. He initially wavered on what to do with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has protected the young immigrants known as Dreamers, then openly contradicted Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions hours after the attorney general announced the end of the program last month.
The day that announcement was made, Trump initially said that only Congress could step in and protect the Dreamers, who will begin losing their work permits and deportation deferrals starting in March. By day’s end, he had softened, writing on Twitter that if Congress failed to act, he would “revisit the issue.”
It’s that tendency of the president to rely on his own instincts and buck his staff’s advice that Democratic lawmakers, some Republicans and advocates of immigrants hope to capitalize on as negotiations get underway in earnest to come up with legislation to provide legal status for Dreamers.
On Sunday, the White House demanded harsh terms from lawmakers. The proposals read like a wish-list from immigration hardliners in the administration, including Trump’s speech writer and senior policy director Stephen Miller, who used to work for Sessions.
Whether Trump will stick to that approach will go a long way toward shaping the debate over the next several weeks.
Some immigration advocates say they have reason to believe he won’t do so. Trump’s instincts are to be tough on immigration, but he has indicated a willingness to make an exception for children brought to the country illegally at a young age, said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, and a longtime advocate for immigration reform.
"He gets that exposing these kids to deportation would go down in history and would define his presidency,” Sharry said.
“He got played by his staff,” Sharry said. “The question is, will the boss fall for it again?”
But that’s only one possible interpretation of Trump’s actions. Other immigrant advocates say they have stopped giving the president any benefit of the doubt, noting that he repeatedly has toyed with the future of the Dreamers over the last several months, promising to do “something nice” for them only to revert to campaign-style harsh rhetoric and proposals.
Some leading advocates for immigration restriction say they’re not concerned about Trump giving away too much.
“Those counter-signals he sends are things that suggest he’s open to a little negotiation,” said Roy Beck, the head of Numbers USA, a Virginia-based group that advocates reducing legal immigration levels. “I think that’s it. That seems to be his M.O.: ‘These are what I really care about, but, hey, I’m a negotiator.’”
The immigration priorities that White House officials set out on Sunday align with speeches Trump made on the campaign trail, Beck noted.
While Trump’s first offer on immigration has little chance of passing, it set down markers which allied him with the most restrictionist voices on the Republican side of the debate over immigration.
Tripling the number of deportation officers, shutting off legal immigration channels, and clamping down on asylum claims, among other proposals, reflect a view that new immigrants take jobs from native-born Americans, as well as a fear that some immigrants are unlikely to assimilate in the U.S. and ultimately could be radicalized by terrorists and present a long-term security threat.
But while those views are strongly held by some members of Congress, people on Trump’s staff and a large share of his voters, many other Republicans disagree. Even before the White House released its list of demands, some Republican lawmakers had dismissed as unworkable the idea of trying to make far-reaching changes in the immigration system in the short time available to protect Dreamers.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) complained at a Judiciary Committee hearing last week that the list of proposals which were then under discussion at the White House “reads like a laundry list” for comprehensive immigration reform.
“It would be very helpful to get from the administration what the priority is,” Tillis said. “I, for one, think that should be a respectful, compassionate, sustainable treatment for the DACA population, and it must include some border security,” Tillis added. “I think that would be a good success for the president.”
Those who think Trump will not allow his hard-line advisers to lock him onto a fixed course note that the president prizes his ability to understand his own base of voters, many of whom have shown they are willing to trust his lead and are not as stringently opposed to legalization for the Dreamers as Sessions and his allies have shown themselves to be.
“I would suggest the president look over the proposal himself, get more involved,” instead of outsourcing immigration policy to a “thirtysomething hardliner,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, referring to Miller, who is 32.
Castro called Trump’s opening bid in the negotiations for an immigration bill “a Breitbart Christmas list of anti-immigrant policies,” pointing to the right-wing website run by Trump’s former top advisor, Stephen K. Bannon.
Dreamers and their advocates, though, are reluctant to rely fully on Trump’s unpredictable decision making as they lay the groundwork in Congress for a year-end showdown.
Congress faces a Dec. 8 deadline to fund the government. The Republican majority, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), will likely not be able to pass the needed legislation without Democratic votes. That creates a point of leverage for the Democratic leaders, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, to exploit.
“We’re going to stand firm,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “We’re going to use every leverage point at our disposal to protect these Dreamers.”