Spending-bill snarl on table, Pelosi says

She seeks deal to shield young aliens

Posted: October 10, 2017 at 2:59 a.m.
Updated: October 10, 2017 at 2:59 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Monday dismissed President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration proposals as "a complete nonstarter," saying her caucus may withhold support for must-pass spending bills later this year if Congress can't agree on how to protect young illegal immigrants from deportation.

"I fully intend to use every possibility" to strike a deal on the status of young immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the California Democrat said. But "we're not at that place yet. Right now, we're trying to get Republicans to vote on what we believe."

In a joint statement Sunday night, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York said Trump could not "be serious about" the plan the White House had unveiled.

On the basis of documents released Sunday night, the Trump administration is demanding full construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, restrictions on legal immigration and a plan to stop young people from leaving Central American nations to illegally cross into the United States. The new proposals came after Trump last month decided to end the program, also known as DACA, and gave Congress six months to pass a solution that he could sign into law.

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House Democrats are pushing for an up-or-down vote on a bill that would grant legal status to eligible program participants in the United States and set many of them on a path to U.S. citizenship. But they have so far failed to persuade enough Republicans to join them in using procedural tactics to force a vote on the legislation.

Pelosi, who met with Trump last month and agreed to work on a plan to protect young immigrants, suggested Monday that the official White House proposals don't mirror the president's personal thinking.

"I do believe the president when he says he wants to protect the 'Dreamers.' I do not think what his staff put forward is in furtherance of that; in fact, it's endangering them," she said.

Young illegal immigrants are often called "Dreamers," a term based on the never-passed Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, that would have given protections similar to those provided by the deferred-action program.

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Trump's instincts are to be tough on immigration, but he has indicated a willingness to make an exception for children brought to the country illegally at a young age, said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice, an organization that advocates for changes in immigration policy.

"He gets that exposing these kids to deportation would go down in history and would define his presidency," Sharry said.

The immigration priorities that White House officials set out on Sunday align with speeches Trump made on the campaign trail, said Roy Beck, the head of Numbers USA, a Virginia-based group that advocates reducing legal immigration levels.

Trump's proposals set down markers that allied him with the most restrictionist voices on the Republican side of the debate over immigration.

While Trump made clear that he still expected funding for the border wall, he has said repeatedly that the funding could come later, in separate legislation.

Pelosi said the administration's new plan is "un-American" and that "there's nothing in it to negotiate because it does not have shared values of who we are as Americans. As long as we understand that, let's go on with what we can agree on."

But White House spokesman Kelly Love said, "The president has made clear he wants Congress to act and pass responsible immigration reform in conjunction with any legislation related to DACA, which will include legal authorities to close border security loopholes, restoring interior enforcement, and reforming the legal immigration system."

Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News that the president was "open to a deal" on young immigrants but only "along with all these other critical functions."

"You know for years, this country, including Capitol Hill and the swamp, they've always asked: What more can we do for the illegal immigrant, what's fair to the illegal immigrant? This president is asking: What's fair to America? What's fair to the American worker? What's fair to the American community?" she said.

Pelosi said her party conference remains unified in opposition to the proposals but is not in agreement on how to respond.

Some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said Monday that they would withhold support for must-pass spending bills unless the future of DACA recipients has been determined. In recent years, near-unanimous support from Democrats has been needed to pass government spending bills and legislation to raise the federal debt limit amid opposition from dozens of fiscal conservatives opposed to increased spending without subsequent budget cuts.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the vice chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called Trump's opening bid in the negotiations for an immigration bill "a Breitbart Christmas list of anti-immigrant policies," pointing to the rightist website run by Trump's former top strategist, Steve Bannon.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., an outspoken critic of Trump's immigration platform, called on Democrats to withhold votes for the spending legislation. He said that Dec. 9, when the spending bill is likely to be put to a vote, will be "a moment of definition" for Democrats.

"If we approve a budget which doesn't include the DREAM Act, then we've turned our back on our immigrant community and our principles," he said. "I'm not saying we should shut down the government, but if you want a budget with Democratic votes, then it's got to have some Democratic priorities."

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., who chairs the Hispanic Caucus, said that withholding votes for spending legislation "is definitely on the table" for her caucus, but she agreed with Pelosi that Democrats should wait before doing so. Immediately threatening to vote against spending legislation "doesn't open the door for moderate Republicans" who support immigration changes, she said.

"I don't think President Trump wants to be the president who deports 700,000 young people," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, who described the list as a "big torpedo" to bipartisan negotiations already underway.

"I think the president's staff have led him into a corner," Noorani said, predicting Trump would "not be happy when he realizes it."

Trump is negotiating as if he has leverage on immigration when he doesn't, said Jim Manley, who was a top aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

"This is one of the worst opening bids I've seen in politics in recent years," Manley said. "None of this is ever going to get through the Senate based on what we've seen so far."

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a longtime advocate of protecting the dreamers, on Thursday introduced a bill that would provide $1.6 billion in funding for border security, target members of gangs like MS-13 for deportation, and allow DACA recipients or children who have been in the U.S. illegally since 2012 to stay for up to 10 years with conditional resident status. They also could get green cards if they meet certain requirements.

But some conservative Republicans are moving in other directions.

Trump last week discussed DACA legislation with a small group of conservative Republican lawmakers including Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia. They have proposed revamping U.S. immigration priorities and creating what they call a "merit-based" system that would move away from chain migration and cut legal immigration in half over a decade.

The bill has attracted no other co-sponsors, and its principles are opposed not only by Democrats but also many Republicans. But the two senators have sympathizers among Trump's aides.

Separately, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa last week said he's demanding that any deal include a mandatory E-Verify system for employers to check the immigration status of job applicants.

White House Legislative Director Marc Short said a review of U.S. immigration laws ordered by Trump identified shortcomings in three major areas: the ability to promptly remove undocumented immigrants at the border; the enforcement of immigration standards inside the U.S., including visa overstays; and ending chain migration, which he described as unfair to taxpayers and citizens.

Gutierrez said that, after Sunday, the president should not be considered a reliable negotiating partner. "Any decision the president makes one day is likely to be completely reversed another, depending on which extremist adviser he is listening to that day," he said.

Others, including Perdue, applauded the proposals, calling the president "spot on."

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said: "We look forward to the administration's insistence on these principles in any deal that is signed into law."

Pelosi signaled that despite the immediate impasse, she anticipates that the issue of dreamers should be resolved by the end of 2017.

"We're hoping that we get it done before December," she said, adding later: "We have to do it before Christmas; that's just the way it is."

Information for this article was contributed by Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post, Jill Colvin and Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press, Brian Bennett and Lisa Mascaro of the Los Angeles Times, and Laura Litvan and Toluse Olorunnipa of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 10/10/2017