WASHINGTON – The Trump administration released a list of hard-line immigration principles late Sunday that could threaten to derail a deal in Congress to allow of hundreds of thousands of younger undocumented immigrants to remain legally in the country.
The administration's wish-list includes the funding of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a crackdown on the influx of Central American minors and curbs on federal grants to sanctuary cities, according to a document distributed to Congress and obtained by the Washington Post.
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 end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era program that had provided two-year work permits to the dreamers that he 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.
"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 a necessary step 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 since taking office through a series of executive orders, including curbs on immigration and refugees from some majority-Muslim nations and an increase in deportations from the interior of the country.
The number of immigrants who have attempted to enter the country illegally across the Mexican border has dropped 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 they expect Congress to include the principles released Sunday in any package deal, a nonstarter for Democrats and some moderate Republicans.
"We ask that the priorities be included in any" deal for DACA, White House legislative director Marc Short said in the conference call.
Immigration hardliners expressed support for the administration's immigration proposals. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, 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 first priority on the list. White House aides declined to specify during the call with reporters about how much money the president would expect from Congress.
The administration also is proposing changes aimed at reducing the flow of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who 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 non-contiguous nations are afforded greater protections than those from Mexico or 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 are likely to 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 on illegal 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., Texas), 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
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 to recur. The last major legislative overhaul to the nation's immigration laws came in 1986, which included a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, but there are more than 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally today.
But the White House's list of immigration principles moves the debate over the fate of the dreamers toward a thep prospect of broader comprehensive reform. Efforts to forge a comprehensive bill failed under the past two presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
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 DACA but said he would hold off the most drastic measures for six months to give Congress time to forge 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."