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Trump’s Immigration Priorities Complicate ‘Dreamer’ Talks

5 Jan

By Laura Meckler and Kristina Peterson, The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON – The gulf over legislation to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation appeared wide Thursday as President Donald Trump insisted that any deal include funding for his promised border wall and new limits on legal immigration to the U.S.

Mr. Trump said the package to protect so-called Dreamers has to include new curbs on America’s ability to sponsor relatives for immigration, a process critics call “chain migration,” and an end to the diversity-visa lottery, which seeks to admit immigrants from underrepresented countries. And the president said he will demand funding for a border wall, an idea Democrats overwhelmingly oppose.

“We’re going to have a wall – remember that, we’re going to have a wall – to keep out deadly drug dealers, dangerous traffickers and violent criminal cartels,” Mr. Trump said ahead of a meeting with GOP senators to discuss immigration.

Mr. Trump’s insistence on several contentious provisions appeared at odds with the stance of some congressional Republicans, who have said in recent days that any agreement will have to be narrowly focused to win needed Democratic votes. The White House said Mr. Trump would invite a bipartisan group of senators to meet with him next week for negotiations.

“One of the risks we run into is we sort of start spiraling out of control into comprehensive immigration reform and then mothering gets done,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R., Texas) on Wednesday, in cautioning against too broad an approach. Of the Dreamers, he said, lawmakers should aim to “come up with a solution for them while regaining the public’s confidence that we’re actually committed to securing the border and enforcing the law.”

The immigration debate was sparked in September when Mr. Trump ended the Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which gave protection from deportation and work permits to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Some 690,000 of these Dreamers have those protections now.

DACA participants were allowed to renew their permits if they were set to expire before March 5 of this year. But some missed that October renewal deadline, and advocates estimate that more than 100 people are losing protections every day. Starting in March, many more participants will fall out of the program.

Mr. Trump has said he hopes Congress will pass legislation protecting this group, but on Thursday he focused on the trade-offs he hopes to get. “We’d love to take care of DACA, but we’re only going to do it under these conditions,” he said.

Democratic leaders say they support tougher border-security measures short of a border wall. Some lawmakers have suggested there may be a way to write legislation that allows both sides to claim victory – letting Mr. Trump and Republican lawmakers say that the wall has been funded and Democrats say it hasn’t.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N. Y.) sidestepped questions Thursday about the specifics of what Mr. Trump was proposing. Democrats have agreed to limits on legal immigration as part of comprehensive immigration legislation but have tried to keep the current talks focused on border security and Dreamers.

“We need strong and real border security, not things that sound good but don’t do the job, and we need to help the Dreamers,” Mr. Schumer told reporters.

Mr. Schumer held back from issuing threats that Democrats would use as leverage a spending bill that needs to pass this month. The government’s current funding expires at 12:01am on Jan. 20.

The bill will need bipartisan support to pass the Senate, and Democrats could balk if lawmakers haven’t agreed to protections for Dreamers. Republicans want to keep the two issues separate.

Democrats saw the president’s engagement on the issue so soon after returning from the holiday break as an encouraging sign.

“We Democrats are hopeful we can get this all done,” Mr. Schumer said.

Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican who represents a large strip of Texas borderland and is trying to craft a bipartisan bill, was among the lawmakers urging a narrow deal.

“Most people realize that some kind of smart boarder security is important, and I think that’s where you start a conversation,” Mr. Hurd said Wednesday. “When you start adding other things on, it makes it a little bit more complicated.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.), who was at Thursday’s White House meeting, said he expects to bring Senate Democrats a framework for discussion that would include substantial border-wall funding and some changes to the family-migration rules. He said Mr. Trump wants to eventually build several hundred miles of new border barriers but that Republicans would insist on at least $1.6 billion for 74 miles in the coming year.

Thursday’s GOP-only meeting at the White House was an effort, in part, to unite Republicans who have a wide range of views over immigration, but it wasn’t clear whether the senators were all on the same page.

“You’ve laid out some principles that we will not compromise on,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who often takes a tough line on immigration, told Mr. Trump ahead of the discussion.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who has worked with Democrats for years on the issue, struck a more conciliatory tone. “Everybody’s got to give a little bit, but I’ve never been more optimistic about an immigration-reform proposal making it to the president’s desk than I am right now,” he said.