Trump team pitches new immigration plan amid furor over border

By Gabby Orr

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner pitched President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members Tuesday on a 600-page immigration proposal that he and some congressional Republicans are urging their colleagues to consider before Congress leaves Washington for its monthlong August recess, according to three people involved in discussions.

The draft legislation, which would end legal loopholes affecting border enforcement and establish a merit-based system for immigrants seeking to legally enter the U.S., comes months after the White House first announced Kushner had created an internal task force with the singular goal of developing a comprehensive proposal on immigration and border security — something the president’s aides want him to cite as he makes his case for reelection.

“When the president asked me to get involved in this last year, the president asked me to work with him to take the ideas that he had for a modern immigration system and figure out how to turn that into a very detailed proposal,” Kushner said at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

“We’re not afraid to put out details because we think that this proposal is a very, very good proposal that really is great for America,” the president's son-in-law added.

But the White House has yet to release the full text of the bill to most members of Congress, including top Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who have engaged in multiple rounds of discussions with Kushner and his team about the immigration package. One congressional aide said the White House has kept the bill “under lock and key,” generally requiring GOP staffers to trek to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue to review its contents.

“We’ve worked with roughly 25 Senate offices in consultation on this legislation, so there’s significant Republican buy-in,” an administration official briefed on the proposal told POLITICO. “The purpose of today is to bring the Republican Party behind a very serious proposal that we can all get behind, and from there we can hopefully engage in negotiations.”

Kushner was forced to postpone a White House meeting with Trump and Republican leaders Tuesday afternoon after a fight erupted on the House floor over Democrats’ resolution to denounce as racist Trump’s recent comments about four freshman congresswomen. That controversy, which has enveloped Capitol Hill, presents a challenge for White House officials seeking to gain bipartisan support for Kushner’s immigration proposal.

During a news conference Monday, the four Democratic women — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts— encouraged their colleagues to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump, who they accused of “openly violating” his constitutional oath of office.

“Right now, the president is committing human rights abuses at the border,” Omar said. “I believe we are in a pivotal moment in our country. The eyes of history are watching us.”

Other Democrats have escalated their criticism of Trump’s immigration policy in recent weeks amid coverage of the overcrowded and unsanitary detention centers in which migrant children and adults are being held at the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump has also come under fire for small-scale deportation raids carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents last weekend.

“It should be a sign to us that today’s Catholic Gospel reading is the Good Samaritan, where Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves and treat them with mercy,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted Sunday, echoing the sentiment shortly before the House voted to rebuke the president’s tweets Tuesday. “Trump’s ICE raids today tear families apart — the opposite of mercy. #FamiliesBelongTogether #KnowYourRights.”

The White House declined to provide a timeline for the release of Kushner’s plan, but two of the sources involved in discussions said they expect to see text of the bill by the end of the week.

“There’s talk among Judiciary Committee staff that [Sen. Lindsey] Graham wants to mark up bills before the August recess, which means this would have to be put on the agenda by Monday,” one of the sources said.

But the White House has billed the legislation, which does not have any Democratic co-sponsors, as a starting point and not “something that will pass in its current form,” according to the administration official.

“We’ve met now with over 25 Senate offices. We’ve gotten extensive feedback from them. They’ve made a lot of good suggestions … and we’ll be ready to release it very soon,” Kushner said, adding that members would receive a 22-page summary of the bill Tuesday.

Kushner has worked closely with Stephen Miller, one of the president’s most hawkish advisers on immigration; officials across the Department of Homeland Security; and bipartisan offices on Capitol Hill as he worked to devise the plan. Dozens of immigration groups from across the ideological spectrum were also brought in for listening sessions earlier this year to offer feedback on the plan.

“The one advantage we have is we actually worked with DHS and we brought in the experts to see what you need to fix loopholes,” the administration official said. “Obviously a 100 percent fix is difficult, but getting to 90 percent is something we think we can do.”

Persuading GOP members to coalesce behind Kushner’s effort will likely require a series of adjustments to the proposal, which is not expected to address illegal immigration beyond the border security component or to modify current levels of legal immigration.

The White House hopes an economic assessment of Kushner’s plan by the Council of Economic Advisers will serve as a major selling point for skeptics of the proposal who worry that it would undermine job opportunities and wages for American workers. “The CEA scored this and found that it would be a significant tax boon — roughly $580 billion — and that it would boost wages,” the official said.

But two congressional aides disputed an administration official’s claim Thursday that the White House already has “significant Republican buy-in.” Both aides characterized Kushner’s plan as a step in the right direction, but said most offices are unlikely to sign on until they’ve seen the full text and the bill’s sponsors.

If Republicans embrace the legislation, the White House is still expected to face an uphill battle with influential outside groups that have demanded sweeping cuts to immigration and have a direct line to Trump’s base. Two restrictionist immigration groups, the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, have sharply criticized previous efforts to change U.S. immigration laws without reducing overall levels.

“If they propose something that doesn’t cut the numbers [of legal immigration] but just moves to a merit-based system, pretty much uniformly Democrats and all of the parts of the media that are allied with the Democratic Party will come out against it wholeheartedly. … It’s not clear for them how it’s a winning strategy to have their own side divided and the other side unified,” Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, who attended one of the listening sessions on Kushner’s bill, told POLITICO in May.