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White House to Congress: we'll legalize DACA recipients if you crack down on most other immigrants

Trump’s “priorities”: restrict asylum, limit family-based legal migration, and build the wall — in exchange for giving legal status, but not citizenship, to 700,000 people.

Chad Batka/Getty

When President Donald Trump announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September, he said he was giving Congress six months to find a legislative solution that would allow the 690,000 young unauthorized immigrants currently protected from deportation under DACA to stay in the country legally.

It turns out his White House has very specific ideas about what they want that solution to be.

They are “not interested in granting citizenship” to current DACA recipients, for example, according to a senior administration official on a Sunday night press call — despite the support by Democrats and many Congressional Republicans for doing just that.

And in exchange for allowing DACA recipients to get some sub-citizenship legal status, the White House wants a comprehensive immigration crackdown.

Its written list of immigration “principles,” released Sunday night, doesn’t say anything about the citizenship question, but it includes a kitchen sink of immigration restrictions. The White House wants the construction of a border wall, changes to federal law to make it much harder for people to seek asylum in the US, to make the E-Verify employment verification system mandatory, and to prevent US citizens and permanent residents from bringing over family members other than spouses and minor children as immigrants to the US.

The Trump administration is essentially asking for Congress to enact Trump’s entire immigration platform from the 2016 campaign, and then some.

The whole proposal is a total 180 from the “deal” that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared they had struck with Trump after a meeting three weeks ago, in which Trump allegedly agreed to sign a bill that legalized DREAMers in response for some undefined demands on border security. The White House has maintained that Trump agreed to no such deal, but the episode (and Trump’s tweets promising to help DREAMers) made it seem that the president was willing to sign a bill that offered citizenship to DACA recipients without asking too much in exchange.

This document makes it clear that at least someone in the White House is, to the contrary, asking for a whole lot.

The question is whether these are demands, and Trump will veto any bill that helps DREAMers without meeting some or any of these priorities; or whether they are simply the opening bid in a negotiation in which the White House seeks to secure significant border-security concessions from Democrats in exchange for a permanent DACA fix.

Administration officials weren’t exactly clear about this on Sunday. At one point, an official said that the White House was hoping to “begin an earnest conversation.” But the letter sent to congressional leaders outlining the principles — signed by Trump himself — says that the document outlines “reforms that must be included as part of any legislation addressing the status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.”

There’s a big difference between the two.

If this is simply the beginning of a conversation, it’s unlikely that most of these priorities would make it into a final deal. Not only do they represent an immigration position to the right of many Republicans (especially if the White House actively opposes citizenship for DACA recipients), but they are demands being made by a White House that has something of a track record of caving to Congress.

But if these are demands, they kill any hope that Congress will be able to pass a bill to protect DACA recipients by March 5 — or ever.

The White House’s immigration principles are uncompromising in their immigration hawkery

The principles laid out by the White House are comprehensive and detailed, and it would take a lot more space to go through all of them. But here are some of the most ambitious proposals that the White House sees as a “priority” in exchange for any legalization of DREAMers.

Building the wall. The first priority listed in the White House’s executive summary is to “Fund and complete construction of the southern border wall.” What that actually means is deliberately unclear; acting Border Patrol Chief Ron Vitello said on Sunday that Congress and Border Patrol needed to work out exactly what would be built and where. The White House has occasionally used “wall” to describe existing border fencing, and has acknowledged that some (perhaps a lot) of the US/Mexico border doesn’t need a total physical barrier. But Democrats in Congress have made it clear time and again that they have no interest in giving money to anything called a “wall,” and it’s the first thing that Schumer and Pelosi pointed to as evidence that Trump was violating the still-vague “deal” they believe they made with the president last month.

Cracking down on asylum-seekers — particularly Central American children and families. Administration officials pushed the talking point on Sunday night that border security didn’t just mean apprehending everyone who crossed into the US without papers, but being able to deport them quickly after they were caught. Their biggest obstacle to doing that now is that many of those people aren’t trying to sneak into the US — they’re coming to seek asylum. And current US law makes it much harder for the government to detain and deport asylum-seekers, especially if they have or are children.

The White House wants Congress to close what it calls legal “loopholes” in the asylum process: making it possible to deport immigrants under the age of 18 back to Central America without a court hearing; allowing the government to detain children in regular, jail-style immigration detention facilities along with their parents; and tightening the standards for when an immigrant can stay in the US to pursue an asylum case. These are requests that have come up occasionally from Republicans ever since the 2014 child migrant crisis, but Democrats tend to worry that they’d result in people being deported back to mortal danger — and could run afoul of international law.

Requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to check that anyone they’re hiring is legally allowed to work in the US. Short of mass deportation, the most aggressive thing the federal government could do to crack down on the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the US would be to require all employers to use the E-Verify system to check the legal status of anyone they’ve hired or are hiring. While the E-Verify system has well-documented problems (both in terms of falsely identifying legal workers as “illegal” and failing to catch unauthorized immigrants), making it universal could still kick millions of unauthorized immigrants out of work or force them into the underpaid underground economy. E-Verify hasn’t been a priority for the Trump administration before now, but “requiring E-Verify” is one of the priorities it lists as part of any DACA deal.

Severely restricting family-based legal immigration. The RAISE Act — the Trump-endorsed bill that would cut legal immigration in half over the next decade — isn’t in the White House’s principles document by name. But the White House isn’t abandoning the idea: It wants Congress to end “chain migration” of family members, and replace it with a “merit-based” immigration system. Specifically, US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Francis Cissna called on Congress to limit family-based legal migration to minor children and spouses of US citizens and legal permanent residents — preventing citizens from bringing over their parents, adult children, or siblings.

Many Republicans have expressed support for decreasing family-based immigration; while the RAISE Act wasn’t terribly appealing to many Republicans in Congress (perhaps because of the strictness of its restrictions on even “merit-based” immigration), it’s possible that most Republicans could get on board with something else that fits the White House’s requirements here. But Democrats — who tend to believe that it’s important for immigrants to be able to keep their families together — would probably consider this proposal a deal breaker on its own. And they certainly aren’t going to take kindly to it in addition to pages more of demands.