President Donald Trump says he’s open to a large-scale immigration reform bill if Republicans and Democrats can reach a compromise. But he forgot the biggest obstacle to a deal: his own policies and the revulsion they’ve already fueled among Democrats.
Trump stormed into the White House with a vow to crack down on undocumented immigrants, and promptly followed through — alienating advocates of a more generous immigration policy. Not only will Trump struggle to persuade Democrats to come to the table, it’s not even clear they’re in the same room.
“If he’s serious, he should give us evidence and say, ‘I’m going to stop the deportations,’” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a key player in past immigration reform efforts. The Illinois Democrat said Trump needs to stand up to his hard line immigration brain trust — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, chief strategist Steve Bannon and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — whom Gutierrez called the “three principal heads of xenophobia.”
Even Trump’s critics were caught off guard by how quickly he moved to implement sweeping campaign promises, including the executive orders to build a wall on the southern border; to greatly broaden the pool of people likely to be deported; temporarily restrict citizens of several majority-Muslim nations from entering the U.S.; and suspend the refugee resettlement program.
Hints of a policy shift emerged on Tuesday afternoon, when the president toldtelevision news anchors in a closed-door luncheon that “the time is right” for an immigration reform bill and expressed openness to legal status for undocumented immigrants. He even suggested he would back giving a pathway to citizenship to so-called Dreamers, who came to the U.S. as children.
Not everyone was convinced.
“Mark my words: This is going to be walked back, we’re going to see no plan at all,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a leading voice on immigration policy within the Democratic Party, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
In his first joint address to Congress Tuesday night, Trump made no mention of such a proposal. Instead, he warned that the U.S. could become a “sanctuary for extremists” and spoke more about criminal immigrants than the vast, law-abiding majority. “Bad ones are going out as I speak tonight,” he said.
In one reference that elicited groans from congressional Democrats, the president touted the creation of a new office within Homeland Security to support victims of crimes by deportable immigrants. He called the new office, dubbed VOICE, a place to turn for people “silenced by special interests.”
Even his vision of immigration reform suggested a move to restrict legal immigration or at least reduce the number of “lower-skilled” immigrants and adopt a merit-based system that would prize skills over family connections.
The result nullified whatever goodwill he might have engendered among Democrats with his more centrist comments earlier in the day.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Schumer portrayed Trump’s immigration reform comments to news anchors as an aberration and the harsher speech to Congress as a better measure of his stance on the issue.
“It was so funny he spoke to a bunch of cosmopolitan news anchors and mentioned maybe he will change his views on immigration and the media got into a buzz about that,” Schumer said. “The speech he gave was one of the most anti-immigrant speeches that we heard any president ever give.” Schumer added Trump was “saying one thing, doing another.”
The Trump administration maintains its early actions around immigration have been reasonable and clearly laid out. White House spokesman Michael Short said the administration is focused on enforcing immigration laws, securing the border and removing criminals in the country illegally. “The president has been clear about what his priorities are right now,” Short said in an email. “If Congress were to begin crafting legislation, he’d be willing to listen and engage with them.”
Immigrant rights groups have already assumed a vehemently anti-Trump posture that makes it difficult to imagine them supporting any kind of legislative effort attached to his name.
“His whole worldview is just crushing the lives of immigrants,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, a liberal group in favor of immigration reform. “So the idea that there would be some compromise on legislation with him, it’s just so far from where we are today.”
Tramonte sees the president’s talk of a “merit-based” immigration system as a euphemism for slashing future levels of immigration. Indeed, a bill introduced last month by Trump ally Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) would do just that — cutting the levels of legal immigration in half over a decade.
“Who engineers the criteria for somebody to qualify for this new merit-based system?” Tramonte asked. “If it’s people who don’t like immigrants, they’re going to make it as narrow as possible.”
The president could find a friendlier reception from business groups, which have been more supportive of his broader policy agenda. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for instance, has refrained from criticizing the administration’s tough enforcement policies, even though it has extolled the economic virtues of immigration in the past.
In the view of Randy Johnson, a senior vice president at the Chamber, Trump’s desire to move to a merit-based immigration system shows he’s open to broader reform. “You can’t do merit-based immigration reform [by] just changing two or three words in the code,” he said.
Trump’s immigration overtures have played better with Republicans, too. Still, they’ll also come with their own list of demands to include in any legislation, from new visas for temporary workers to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants.
Few know the challenges to gathering consensus on immigration as well as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has worked to rally his party toward a reform bill for more than a decade. “I think it opens a window of opportunity that perhaps we can all work together,” he said of Trump’s comments in an interview.
McCain, however, thinks citizenship — and not just legalization — for undocumented immigrants should be part of any legislative effort. Trump reportedly said Tuesday that he would oppose a pathway to citizenship for most of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“Suppose when the Irish came,” McCain asked, “should we have said … you can come but you can never be citizens? C’mon … Why would you want to have someone permanently reside in the United States without an opportunity to work their way through citizenship?”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who worked with McCain and Schumer on a bipartisan immigration reform effort in 2013, said Trump would need to support the principles in that bill to get any traction in the Senate.
“If he’s willing to embrace a logical solution for the 11 million that allows legal status, a pathway to citizenship for some, after they pass criminal background checks, requirements to learn English and pay a fine, then bill will pass,” Graham said. “If he doesn’t, it won’t pass.”