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Republican who’s broken with Trump on immigration says president may be too generous on DACA

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) speaks with reporters before a town hall meeting with constituents in a high school assembly hall on Feb. 20 in Greenwood Village, Colo. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who has cast himself as a moderate on immigration policy, told voters last week the president “probably has a more generous plan for DACA than I would [propose]” and it might be time to “transition to zero tolerance” when it came to overall immigration policy.

The remarks — made at a $25-per-ticket event in his congressional district — were seized on by Democrats who see Coffman as one of their top 2018 targets in taking back the House of Representatives. The congressman won reelection in 2016, even though Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton easily carried Colorado’s 6th District that encompasses most of Denver’s eastern suburbs.

Coffman in the past has presented himself as a moderate voice willing to stand up to President Trump and has used reelection ads that highlight his work for immigrant communities.

Earlier this year, Coffman came out strongly against Trump’s “zero tolerance” border enforcement policy that resulted in the jailing and separation of migrant families and endorsed a bill from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to address the problem.

But Coffman’s remarks, a recording of which was provided to The Washington Post, demonstrate the difficulties that come with navigating immigration policy as a Republican who sometimes crosses Trump.

With the Supreme Court deciding to leave the controversy over Trump's DACA deadline for lower courts to decide, the fate of dreamers stays in limbo. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: SHANNON STAPLETON/The Washington Post)

At one point in the tape, Coffman was asked by an attendee what Congress would do about “anchor babies” — that is, rescinding the practice of birthright citizenship — and Coffman quickly pivoted into an extended riff about how different communities in his district have different immigration policy priorities.

Young immigrants and Mexicans, he said, tended to care more about preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, he said, while Central American immigrants were more concerned about Trump’s revocation of temporary protected status visas.

“They’ve been here forever legally,” Coffman added. “It’s what to do about that population. I think we have to, I know we have to, transition to zero tolerance.”

Democrats, however, intended to highlight Coffman’s answer — and brand him as a hypocrite who might sign onto immigration reform bills but cannot be trusted to push them forward.

“Behind closed doors, Mike Coffman revealed who he really is: a fraud,” said Jason Crow, the Democrat running against Coffman. “In 2016 he said he’d stand up to Donald Trump, and on countless other occasions he’s painted himself as a compassionate conservative on immigration. But this demonstrates clearly that when he thinks no one but his base is listening, he believes Donald Trump is too generous on DACA; he believes the zero tolerance policy that rips children away from their families is correct; and he believes that Washington gridlock on immigration reform is the best case scenario.”

In a statement, Coffman’s campaign accused Democrats of misleading his remarks to obscure his work.

“Mike Coffman has been a bipartisan leader on immigration reform, no matter how much Democratic operatives want to lie about and distort his record,” Coffman’s campaign manager Tyler Sandberg said. “Mike led the opposition to the Trump administration’s inhumane family separation policy, something that Trump ultimately backed down on. However, unlike many Democrats in D.C., Mike does not support open borders.”

The crux of the dispute is what Coffman meant by “zero tolerance.” While Crow accuses him of referring to the family separations policy, that is not the immediate context of his remarks in the recording. Instead, he suggests that would be the goal after wide-ranging immigration reform legislation is passed.

“Zero tolerance” is a phrase Coffman has used in the past — before Trump’s border policy took effect — including in a pair of 2017 op-ed pieces. One, in the Denver Post, suggests opening a “brief window where those illegally in the country can come out of the shadows,” followed by the imposition of tougher laws and enforcement to send a message to would-be illegal immigrants.

“We can do that by adopting a policy of ‘zero’ tolerance,” he wrote on Jan. 14, 2017.

In the recording obtained by The Post, shortly after the “zero tolerance” comment, Coffman explained he differed slightly with Trump on the issue of who should and should not get legal status if Congress resolved the status of immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

“He probably has a more generous plan for DACA than I would, where there are 800,000 enrolled in DACA in the United States,” Coffman said. “I think it was an illegal executive order under the Obama administration that will eventually wind up in the Supreme Court, and so we need to do something legislatively to correct that. So he goes to 1.8 million. So, he basically says, extrapolates from this, there’s probably 1 million people who didn’t apply for the program that were eligible for the program. So, I think, he does 1.8 million.”

Coffman was discussing a White House compromise that was floated in January, but soon disappeared from negotiations — one that would include the extension of legal status, and a pathway to citizenship, to about 1.8 million immigrants who either enrolled in DACA or were of the age and immigration status where they could have enrolled in it.

While Coffman said at the event he preferred limiting a DACA fix to the smaller population, he voted in June for a House bill that would have granted renewable work permits and a potential path to citizenship to the larger population.