Conservative immigration hawks are losing faith in President Trump, who left them fuming Tuesday when he endorsed a two-phase process to permanently protect young undocumented immigrants and later pursue comprehensive changes to interior enforcement and legal immigration policies.
The outline of a side-by-side approach emerged during a televised White House meeting with President Trump and 20 lawmakers, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who lured the president into seemingly declaring his support for a “clean” bill that codifies the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“I have no problem,” Trump told the California Democrat. “We’re going to do DACA, and then we can start immediately on the phase two, which would be comprehensive.”
White House officials were later forced to clarify that Trump’s definition of a clean bill differed greatly from the legislative process Feinstein had described, telling reporters, “A DACA bill he deems as ‘clean’ would include border security.’”
Conservatives who have long opposed legalizing the expiring DACA program without first improving border security and eliminating loopholes that allow immigrants to remain in the U.S. illegally were alarmed and befuddled by Trump’s comments.
“There was one thing missing from the White House today: a coherent, unequivocal position by the president who campaigned and won on the immigration issued,” said Bob Dane, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
“Even though the public relations flacks at the White House clarified Trump’s statements afterwards, his comments are red meat for the Democrats,” Dane continued. “I think this represents a certain level of naivety on the president’s behalf.”
Roy Beck, president of the immigration reduction group NumbersUSA, said in a statement following the public negotiations that Trump “must hold fast to his compact with American workers and greatly reduce both the illegal and legal competition from mass migration.”
Beck blasted what he referred to as an “amnesty-now and enforcement/reform-later agreement,” claiming such proposals “always fail the American people” and “result in more illegal immigration and continued flooding of U.S. labor markets.”
Republicans present for the meeting on Tuesday repeatedly attempted to steer the president away from a deal that would tackle DACA and border security first and a host of other issues — like family-based immigrant visas, catch-and-release policies, employment verification, and at-random green cards — in a broader immigration reform package later on.
“Mr. President, you need to be clear though,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., advised Trump following his response to Feinstein’s question about a clean DACA bill. “When we talk about just DACA, we don’t want to be back here two years later. We have to have security.”
Trump appeared unreceptive to such overtures, telling the room at one point: “I think what we’re all saying is we’ll do DACA and we can certainly start comprehensive immigration reform the following afternoon. OK?”
“I’m sure Stephen Miller was squirming in his chair,” Dane mused, noting that the 32-year-old White House policy adviser has “meticulously and methodically laid out a plan to implement longstanding immigration fixes.”
Miller could not be reached for comment.
A source close to the negotiations told the Washington Examiner it would be nearly impossible for the White House to ensure issues like chain migration and interior enforcement are promptly addressed after a DACA bill clears the president’s desk.
“Your border, interior enforcement, and immigration reform have to be done contemporaneously with the DACA bill,” the source said.
The source pointed to a recent influx in the apprehensions of family units and unaccompanied minors at the border in the Southwest as an incentive to include measures that boost interior enforcement and reform the asylum and court system for illegal immigrants in the initial bill to extend DACA protections.
“You can look historically at the arrival numbers and also the capture numbers that [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] takes and anytime we even talk about amnesty, you see a spike in border numbers,” the source said.
The same source suggested administration officials might begin to broaden their arguments for enhanced border security — beyond infrastructure — in the coming days. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders declined to provide examples of other aspects of border security that Trump could demand be included in an immigration bill.
Sanders said lawmakers made a behind-the-scenes agreement Tuesday to focus on four priorities — border security, chain migration, the visa lottery, and DACA — as they continue to negotiate an immigration bill.
“Both sides are going to have to give a little bit,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters after attending the White House meeting. “I think there’s a path there to get DACA and several other things that we’ve been talking about for a long time, and both sides seem motivated to do that. The question is whether it can happen in the next 10 days.”
Meanwhile, conservatives are warning the White House that rushing a deal through Congress, and placing certain immigration reforms on the backburner to do so, would have devastating consequences for the GOP in a midterm year. The DACA program is set to expire on March 5, but Democrats have insisted that it be dealt with legislatively as part of a budget deal that lawmakers are hoping to iron out before the government runs out of money next Friday.
“If DACA comes before everything else, then this is a sellout just like the Gang of Eight bill and I cannot overestimate the damage to the GOP in the midterm elections if what we heard today is the priority,” Dane told the Washington Examiner, predicting that Trump’s base would go “scorched-earth” on Republicans facing re-election challenges.
Dale Wilcox, executive director of FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, said Republicans instead have an opportunity to learn from past failures and permanently change the course of immigration trends.
“The 1986 immigration deal gave us amnesty for illegal aliens with a promise of increased border security that never materialized,” Wilcox said. “The border wall, chain migration, and the visa lottery are the heavy lifting of this process. They should be addressed in conjunction with any DACA agreement, or they will again be kicked down the road to a time when the problems have become much worse.”
Bipartisan lawmakers are expected to gather for a second meeting later this week to continue hammering out a deal on DACA. It is unclear with Trump again plans to participate.