President Trump has been sounding like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., on immigration lately, even as some longtime supporters worry he is going soft on the issue.
Ever since a White House dinner with Democratic congressional leaders earlier this month, there have been questions about where Trump's immigration loyalties lie.
Would Trump prefer to cut a deal with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., betraying the Steve Bannon/Ann Coulter wing of his base but delivering a legislative fix for young illegal immigrants that eluded former President Obama? Or is he aligned with a group of congressional immigration hawks, led by Cotton?
Trump has given a few clues. He has strongly signaled that he would like Congress to legalize those protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Obama created by executive order after he failed to get legislation passed. But he has also been echoing Cotton's arguments against "chain migration" — the process by which one group of immigrants sponsors foreign relatives to enter the United States.
Cotton has come out in favor of legalization as part of a DACA deal. But he also wants to reduce incentives for future illegal immigration and prevent the bill from morphing into a broader amnesty. So Cotton has suggested pairing DACA with his RAISE Act, a proposal to limit family reunification, create a point system for employment-based immigration and cut the number of green cards issued overall.
In little noticed-comments Friday upstaged by talk of the NFL and many other issues, Trump downplayed the border wall and repeated his endorsement of the RAISE Act.
The wall is coming, Trump vowed. But, he added, "You don't need it all the way."
"We are going to have as much wall as we need," Trump told attendees at a rally for Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala. ""You have a lot of natural barriers, etc. Somebody said, 'Well, what are you going to do, you going to build that wall in the middle of the river? ... That nobody can go in? Are you going to build that wall on the mountain?' I said, 'You don't need the wall on the mountain. You have a mountain which is a wall.' But we are going to build a wall. It is coming along great."
But then the president has this to say about Cotton's immigration-reducing bill.
"To deliver for American families, we have also been working to pass the RAISE Act — legislation that would end chain migration and switch our country to a merit-based immigration system," Trump said. "Merit, merit, merit… people that will help our country."
"We have Tom Cotton, we have David Perdue [R-Ga.], two great senators, and they're working hard on it," the president continued. "The RAISE Act would keep new immigrants from going on welfare for five years … Isn't that nice? They don't walk over and say ‘I'm going on welfare.' Isn't that nice?"
"It's time to create an immigration system that serves the interests of the United States of America," Trump concluded.
On Monday, Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and James Lankford, R-Okla., introduced a Dream Act alternative that doesn't go as far as some immigration restrictionists would like. But it does bar Dreamers from sponsoring family members as immigrants until they have completed a lengthy path to citizenship.
"We'll take the hits on the far left for saying you're not getting them to citizenship soon enough, and you'll take it on the far right for saying you've ever given them an opportunity to pursue citizenship," Tillis told reporters.
Indeed, former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., told the Washington Examiner his preferred solution would give childhood arrivals "work permits, no threat of deportation if they keep their noses clean, and no path to citizenship."
"It's a hard issue," said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who expressed sympathy for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. through no fault of their own. But Jones also worried about a "slippery slope" that would lead to more illegal immigration and more amnesties.
It remains to be seen whether Trump can sell the immigration hardliner portion of his base on any legislation should of the wall, regardless of how tough it might be in other areas.