The Trump administration released a list of hard-line immigration principles late Sunday that threaten to derail a deal in Congress to allow hundreds of thousands of younger undocumented immigrants to remain in the country legally.
The demands were quickly denounced by Democratic leaders in Congress who had hoped to forge a deal with President Trump to protect younger immigrants, known as “dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Trump announced plans last month to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era program that had provided two-year work permits to the dreamers that Trump called “unconstitutional.”
About 690,000 immigrants are enrolled in DACA, but their work permits are set to begin expiring in March. Trump had met last month with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and agreed to try to strike a deal, worrying immigration hawks who feared that Trump would support a bill that would allow dreamers to gain full legal status without asking for significant border security measures in return.
The list released by the administration, however, would represent a major tightening of immigration laws. Cuts to legal immigration also are included. And, while Democrats have called for a path to citizenship for all dreamers, a group estimated at more than 1.5 million, a White House aide said Sunday night the administration is "not interested in granting a path to citizenship" in a deal to preserve the DACA program.
“The administration can't be serious about compromise or helping the Dreamers if they begin with a list that is anathema to the Dreamers, to the immigrant community and to the vast majority of Americans,” Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement Sunday evening. “We told the President at our meeting that we were open to reasonable border security measures ... but this list goes so far beyond what is reasonable. This proposal fails to represent any attempt at compromise.”
In a conference call with reporters, White House aides described the proposals as necessary to protect public safety and jobs for American-born workers, which was a centerpiece of Trump's campaign. The president has moved to tighten border security through executive orders, including curbs on immigration and refugees from some majority-Muslim nations and an increase in deportations.
The number of immigrants who have attempted to enter the country illegally across the Mexican border has decreased sharply since Trump took office.
Democrats had hoped that Trump, who had equivocated over the DACA program before deciding to terminate it in the face of a legal challenge from Texas, would be open to crafting a narrow legislative deal to protect the dreamers. But White House aides emphasized that they expect Congress to include the principles released Sunday in any package deal, a nonstarter for Democrats and some moderate Republicans.
"These findings outline reforms that must be included as part of any legislation addressing the status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients," Trump wrote in a letter to Congress. "Without these reforms, illegal immigration and chain migration, which severely and unfairly burden American workers and taxpayers, will continue without end."
Immigration hard-liners expressed support for the administration's immigration proposals. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) praised the administration for “a serious proposal” and said that “we cannot fix the DACA problem without fixing all of the issues that led to the underlying problem of illegal immigration in the first place.”
Trump had said several times over the past month that he did not expect a DACA deal to include funding for a border wall, emphasizing that the money could be included in separate legislation. But ensuring funding for the wall, which is projected to cost more than $25 billion, is the top priority on the list. White House aides declined to specify during the call how much money the president would expect from Congress.
Despite the White House's calls for the complete construction of a southern border wall and the support of some ardent conservatives in Congress, several GOP lawmakers from border states have expressed skepticism about such projects in the past. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), the second-ranking Republican, has introduced legislation that would fund only partial wall construction and mostly renovations of existing barriers.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a frequent sparring partner of Trump's, has also cast doubt on building a wall, saying that such barriers would require accounting for the flow of rivers that run north and south across the two countries.
Others, including Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), whose south Texas district includes more than 800 miles of border, has proposed using technology -- not brick and mortar -- to track the border for potentially illegal crossings.
In its principles, the Trump administration also is proposing changes aimed at reducing the flow of unaccompanied minors from Central America, tens of thousands of whom have entered the United States illegally in recent years. Immigrant rights groups have said the minors, as well as women and families, have fled gang violence and other dangers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Under current law, minors who arrive from noncontiguous nations are afforded greater protections than those from Mexico and Canada, but the Trump administration is proposing to treat them all the same in a bid to be able to deport the minors more quickly. Such proposals will probably face fierce resistance from Democrats and human rights groups.
The administration also has sought to increase pressure on sanctuary cities, which refuse, in some cases, to cooperate with federal immigration agents seeking personal information about undocumented immigrants who've committed other crimes in their jurisdictions. Under the immigration priorities released Sunday, the administration is proposing that Congress withhold federal grants to such jurisdictions and that it clarify the authority of state and local jurisdictions to honor detainers issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“There is no justification for releasing a public safety threat back into the public,” said Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE. “We will not stop illegal immigration unless we stop the pull factors that are driving it. ... Entering this country illegally is a crime but there are no consequences for sneaking past the border or overstaying visas.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that “Congress should reject this warped, anti-immigrant policy wish list. The White House wants to use dreamers as bargaining chips to achieve the administration’s deportation and detention goals.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a longtime advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, in an interview called Trump's proposals “an extension of the white supremacist agenda.” He said it is “fanciful thinking that you can sit down with a man who has based his presidential aspirations and has never wavered from his xenophobic positions. I never understood — I just never got it, how you go from Charlottesville and white supremacists to reaching an agreement with him.”
Gutierrez renewed calls for Democrats to withhold support for an upcoming bill that would raise the debt limit or extend government spending, saying that “if you want a budget with Democratic votes, then it's got to have some Democratic priorities.”
Trump aides said the administration's priorities are imperative because legalizing the dreamers without fixing other parts of the immigration system would allow the problem to continue. The last major legislative overhaul to the nation's immigration laws came in 1986 and included a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, but more than 11 million undocumented immigrants are living in the country now.
The White House's list of immigration principles will move the debate over the fate of the dreamers toward the prospect of broader comprehensive reform. Efforts to forge a comprehensive bill failed under the past two presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
During his campaign, Trump had threatened to end DACA on his first day in office, but he equivocated for months, suggesting that the decision over the fate of the dreamers was among the most difficult he faced. After Texas and several other states announced plans to sue the administration over the program, Trump moved to end it but said he would hold off the most drastic measures for six months to give Congress time to find a legislative solution.
“We would expect Congress to include all the reforms in any package that addresses the status of the DACA recipients,” said one White House aide on the conference call who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Other views had their fair day in the democratic process.”
Noting that the Republicans swept the White House and both chambers of Congress in November, the aide added: “The American public voted for the reforms included in this package.”
Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.