Lawmakers in both parties said Sunday that the immigration debate should focus narrowly on efforts to legalize young immigrants known as "dreamers" and beef up border security, suggesting that President Trump's demands to slash legal immigration levels are likely to sink a deal.
Though Democratic leaders have grudgingly offered wall funding, they have accused the president of leveraging the dreamers as "ransom" to severely constrict legal immigration, calling it a wish list for "anti-immigration hard-liners" and "white supremacists."
Congress members, including some Republicans, said Sunday that the negotiations have gone too far afield ahead of a March 5 deadline after which 690,000 dreamers in an Obama-era deferred action program could begin to lose their protections from deportation.
"It seems to me that the two important things to tackle right now . . . are to protect the dreamers and also to strengthen border security," Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
She called Trump's proposals to reform legal immigration "very important" but also "very complicated."
Appearing after Collins on the same show, Reps. Will Hurd (R-Tx.) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) — who have proposed a House bill to provide legal status to dreamers and bolster border security — agreed that addressing the legal immigration system in the negotiations over dreamers is implausible.
"I still believe that a narrow bill is most important; the thing that we can get through our Congress, both houses, in the House and in the Senate," said Hurd, who represents a district with more than 800 miles of border with Mexico. "Because the more things you add, you start creating coalitions of opposition. And so let's keep this narrow."
White House officials rejected suggestions that the president was asking for too much. In rolling out his plan last week, aides called the citizenship path for dreamers a potential lure for additional illegal immigration and said the proposed border security increases — including more immigration agents and judges — would help prevent it.
They said the curbs to family immigration — which Trump and other conservatives have referred to as "chain migration" — would help offset a surge in legalized immigrants represented by the dreamers, who have been in the country since they were children.
White House legislative director Marc Short said Sunday that Trump was willing to incur some criticism from his hard-right base by supporting the dreamers in order to reform the immigration system.
"We feel that is certainly worth it if we can help to fix this problem once and for all, which is the other parts of the proposal the president has put forward," Short said on "Fox News Sunday." Referring to the Senate and House Democratic leaders, Short added: "The question is, are Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi going to provide cover for their members from the radical left-leaning base? So far, they are not showing the same leadership."
Congressional efforts at comprehensive immigration reform failed under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In 2013, the Senate approved bipartisan legislation that would have offered a path to citizenship for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, build or renovate 700 miles of border fencing and enact significant changes to family immigration and work visa programs — but the GOP-controlled House did not allow a vote on that bill.
Negotiators from both parties said after meeting with Trump at the White House two weeks ago that they had agreed to narrow the talks to four categories — the future of the dreamers, border security, cuts to family immigration and the diversity visa lottery, which Trump wants to eliminate.
Trump's plan would terminate the ability of U.S. citizens to apply for green cards, awarding permanent legal residence, for their parents and siblings. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimated that the proposal could annually drop the number of green cards by at least 288,000 — 36 percent of the total number last year.
In a private meeting with a smaller bipartisan group, Trump reportedly used a vulgar word to describe Haiti, El Salvador and African countries and asked aloud why the United States could not have more immigrants from countries like Norway — sparking widespread outrage and prompting calls from immigrant rights groups for Democrats to hold a harder line in the talks.
"It's offensive for a number of reasons just on pure policy," Greg Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said of the president's bid to slash family immigration. "It takes us back generations, to a time of far more restrictive immigration at the turn of the 20th century. It disregards the incredibly positive impact immigration has had on the country in terms of economic and social benefits."
He noted that the family immigration programs, implemented in 1965, initially favored those from European countries but have since evolved to cover more immigrants from Asia and Latin America.
"It's striking that now the administration wants to entertain a whole litany of topics that amounts to comprehensive reform," Chen said. "What is likely to get done in this environment is something much more limited."