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Immigration talks at White House produce vague path forward

Administration officials decline to offer specifics on next steps

Families Belong Together set up artist Paola Mendoza’s life-sized cage installation on the Capitol lawn on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. The event was held to coincide with the anniversary of the Trump administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ family separation policy. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Families Belong Together set up artist Paola Mendoza’s life-sized cage installation on the Capitol lawn on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. The event was held to coincide with the anniversary of the Trump administration’s ‘zero-tolerance’ family separation policy. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Tuesday started with talk of White House officials preparing to lay out a centrist immigration plan born from Jared Kushner’s monthslong efforts to bridge wide divides between Republicans and Democrats. But it ended with the administration tepidly pointing only to a “potential plan” with scant details.

And White House officials were unable to clearly explain just why many — if any — House and Senate Democrats would support a plan that they said was received warmly by a group of conservative GOP senators.

“I think [President Donald Trump] was very happy with the meeting today. I think we got a very positive reaction from a lot of people whose opinions … he wanted to seek,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday evening.

“And I think it was a good step forward to validate a lot of his instincts on what he wanted to produce,” the official said.

But Trump’s instincts on immigration routinely revert back to the kinds of hard-line stances espoused by Stephen Miller, one of his chief domestic policy advisers, who was an aide to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions when the Alabama Republican served in the Senate. 

Asked if the president wants to gather a group of Democrats around a White House conference table and seek their opinions on what’s needed to address immigration matters, the senior official demurred.

“You’re jumping a bunch of steps ahead and today was one step in the process,” the official told CQ Roll Call. “We’ve had a lot of steps you [reporters] don’t know about. And we’ll have more steps that you probably won’t know about. And probably we’ll have steps you will know about,” the official added, advising a reporter to “relax.”

Devil in the details

But relaxed journalists do not translate to Democratic votes the White House will need in the House and Senate to get an immigration bill to Trump’s desk. What the senior official described Tuesday evening did not include a proposed temporary or permanent fix for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump froze and a federal court has allowed to continue while litigation is ongoing.

Top Democrats have long said that any immigration overhaul they support would have to address that program.

According to the senior administration official, what is included in the still-under-construction plan are ideas officials say they are not ready to publicly discuss that would address six broad goals: securing the Southern border, including “physical infrastructure … where needed”; protecting “American wages”; attracting and retaining “the best and brightest to America”; “unify[ing] families,” which is notable due to the administration’s policy of separating migrant families; legally bringing in labor for critical industries; and enforcing humanitarian values.

The official also talked about the plan calling for new technologies to bolster legal ports of entry, and proposals to “look for illicit materials” such as narcotics while also “benefiting trade.”

Without providing the kinds of policy nitty-gritty that makes or breaks such broad ideas, the official also said the emerging plan would close “loopholes” in the asylum system to allow those with “real” claims “to get into the system quickly.”

Whose plan?

Multiple major news outlets reported Monday evening and Tuesday morning that Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a White House policy adviser, would lay out his immigration overhaul proposal to a small group of Republican senators. But by the end of the day, White House aides were dismissing those reports.

“This is President Trump’s immigration plan,” the senior administration official said. “This isn’t a Kushner plan or a Miller plan. Everyone at the White House is pretty united on this.”

The senior official said changes proposed in the plan would not affect current legal immigration levels. But that appears unlikely to attract anywhere near enough bipartisan support in either chamber to get a bill to Trump’s desk.

The first signs that the meeting was unlikely to end with a description of a plan that would have even a remote chance of passing surfaced as officials tried to tamp down expectations on cable TV and in private conversations with reporters.

A short time after the 3 p.m. Cabinet Room confab with the GOP senators wrapped, the White House issued a summary statement that did not even mention Kushner. And it mentioned an actual overhaul proposal only in the most tepid of language.

“The President and Senators discussed a potential plan that would secure the border, protect and raise wages for the American worker, and move toward a merit based immigration system,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said. “President Trump wants a commonsense, lawful and safe immigration system that Americans, and those wanting to become Americans, have deserved for a long time.”

The complication there is that the president frequently pivots to the hard-line immigration rhetoric and policies of Miller.

“This is a deep intellectual problem that is plaguing this city, which is that we’ve had thousands of Americans die year after year after year because of threats crossing our Southern border,” Miller told Fox News in February. “We have families and communities that are left unprotected and undefended. We have international narco-terrorist organizations. This is a threat in our country, not overseas.”

H-2B visas

Once again, the White House invited only Republican members, even though they will need Democratic votes in both chambers to pass any immigration legislation for the next year-and-a-half. While shut out of the White House session, Democrats were not silent Tuesday on immigration matters.

Democratic senators called on the Trump administration to help pass legislation that would permanently increase the annual cap of seasonal worker visas. That came after the administration announced on Monday that it will issue an additional 30,000 such H-2B visas for fiscal 2019.

“I think we ought to go back and sit down and do what the president originally said … which is to pass a comprehensive reform bill rather than trying to do it piecemeal to help Republican donor interests,” Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said Tuesday.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen provided an additional 15,000 H-2B visas for fiscal 2018 after consulting with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, members of Congress, and business owners.

In a sign of the difficulty on agreeing to even a small subset of the issues in an immigration overhaul, some Republicans such as Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton quickly denounced the administration’s move to provide additional H-2B visas, saying that the U.S. immigration system “should prioritize the needs of U.S. citizens over cheap foreign labor.”

“Allowing an additional 30,000 seasonal workers into the country forces Americans to compete for jobs against non-citizens who drag down wages,” Cotton said in a statement. “We should be setting immigration policies that support wage growth and employment for Americans instead of encouraging a race to the bottom by importing low-cost labor.”

But there are divisions within the GOP caucus that also could complicate things for the White House on its immigration push.

For instance, Sen. John Cornyn disagreed with Cotton’s comments, saying he supported the Trump administration’s decision to provide additional H-2B visas.

“I support the expansion,” the Texas Republican said Tuesday. “I wish we could do this in the context of the larger immigration fix, but we can’t wait for those additional visas. So I’m glad the administration has done it.”

Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.

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