Congressional leaders fear President Donald Trump’s staff are exploiting the president’s busy schedule to push their own agenda and undermine his pledge to protect Dreamers.
According to four political operatives working closely with Republicans, leaders in both the House and Senate characterized some of the White House’s demands, which have yet to go public, as “poison pills,” saying they are impossible to achieve and that the White House staffers’ intent is to scuttle the deal for political gain.
The focus of their ire is on Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser, who drafted the principles and has been behind several other controversial White House initiatives, including the ban on travel from several Muslim-majority nations. He is one of the few hard-right conservatives remaining in the White House after the departure of Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon.
“We use to joke about President Bannon. Now it's President Miller,” one senior lawmaker said in a meeting about the White House’s immigration and border security demands.
Time is running out on the young people brought illegally to the United States as children after Trump ended an Obama-era program, known as DACA, that shielded some 800,000 from deportation.
It's an urgent situation by Washington standards as Republican leaders seek out a quick solution before mid-term campaign season kicks into high gear. They do not want to be blamed for the program’s end and are scrambling for a solution before DACA protections start expiring on March 6 of next year.
Leaders in both the Senate and House not only see the proposals coming from the White House as running afoul of the tentative agreement Trump discussed with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at a Sept. 13 dinner at the White House. They also are unlike what Trump has described in public and private meetings with Republican leaders, according to Republican operatives working the issue on the Hill.
What Republicans say Trump agreed to was some form of a Dream Act proposal that would protect the Dreamers, but that also included additional border security. But the White House’s principles, first reported by McClatchy, also include measures for reducing legal immigration, interior enforcement and implementing workplace enforcement that will make it difficult to gain Democratic and even some Republican support.
“All the efforts now to use the Dreamers as these political pawns to get the wish list of all these other enforcement measures are only going to undermine that deal,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the Partnership for a New American Economy. “They’re all non-starters.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Friday that the administration will soon lay out Trump’s principles for “responsible immigration reform.”
“You can count on that to happen very soon,” Sanders said. “And that’s all part of the process moving forward. But he hasn’t been unclear about what his position is on that front.”
The White House did not respond to questions about concerns in Congress. Nor did the staff of House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wouldn’t be able comment on “an anonymous source’s characterization of principles that have not yet been released.”
But those who support stronger enforcement proposals say they’re not surprised leaders are pushing back. On immigration, leadership is largely aligned with Democrats, including Dreamers, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies who has been pushing similar proposals for years.
But Krikorian and other enforcement advocates, such as Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, say border security is simply not enough.
Considering how many illegal immigrants actually arrive in the country legally, any proposal must include E-Verify, an online database that checks the work eligibility of new hires, Krikorian said. It also must address chain migration, which refers to citizens or permanent residents sponsoring relatives or the clustering of certain immigrants in the same areas, Mehlman said.
“If you amnesty the DACAs without changing chain migration, you’re just amnestying their parents with a time delay,” Krikorian said.
Krikorian criticized Republicans who charged Miller was taking advantage of Trump and accused the operatives of trying to cause trouble for Miller.
“Trump may be a bore, but he’s not a fool,” Krikorian said. “This is not slipping a line in a speech.”
Some members of Congress are asking where is General John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, who was supposedly tasked to bring order to battling factions inside and outside the White House.
“There is a lot of frustration on the Hill because there is an understanding that to get it through the House you’re going to have to add some border security money, but what folks on the president’s staff are proposing — whether he realizes it or not — are basically poison pills,” said a former senior Republican aide.
Trump struggled for months over what to do about the Dreamers. He wavered between describing the DACA program as “amnesty” to promising to deal with the problem with heart.
He continued to struggle after ending the program, expressing hope that Congress would find a way to protect them permanently. He has also sent mixed messages, including several tweets that Dreamers are safe and that he would “revisit” the issue if Congress didn’t work out a deal.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.