Even as President Donald Trump threatens to shut down the southern border, his administration is quietly working on a plan to expand some forms of legal immigration into the U.S.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has been working for months on a proposal that could increase the number of low- and high-skilled workers admitted to the country annually, four people involved in the discussions told POLITICO.
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The low-profile effort to allow more legal immigrants into the U.S. stands in stark contrast to Trump’s increasingly dramatic efforts to curb illegal immigration, an issue he speaks about daily and describes as a national crisis. But Trump himself has publicly said he also supports higher levels of legal immigration, a priority generally backed by a business community short on skilled workers.
The effort began in January when Kushner started to convene a series of meetings with dozens of advocacy groups, including business and agriculture organizations. Some, though not all of them, openly support the expansion of legal immigration. It has continued in recent weeks with a smaller four-person White House working group led by Kushner and could generate a proposal for Congress by summer.
Trump personally tasked Kushner — who successfully forged a December compromise on criminal justice reform but is still struggling to deliver a Middle East peace plan — with the priority of legal immigration. But it is a daunting challenge, requiring legislation in an issue area that has confounded Congress in recent years.
Stephen Miller, a senior White House adviser and influential hard-liner on immigration, has not attended most of Kushner’s meetings, according to a half-dozen attendees. But Miller — whose restrictionist views have slowed past compromise efforts — must sign off on any plan before Trump does, according to some familiar with the situation.
But hawkish immigration activists, who have been frustrated with Trump’s relentless focus on a border wall, are worried that the president will be influenced by Kushner’s more moderate views on immigration and will fail to fulfill his campaign pledge to crack down on immigration. Trump already has spoken about expanding legal immigration at least four times this year.
“The president must remember that he was elected to implement an immigration system that serves national interests, not business interests,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, whose president attended a meeting with Kushner. “A plan to increase overall immigration is nothing more than a handout to businesses so they don’t have to compete for American workers and raise wages.”
FAIR released a new online ad Friday urging Trump to not be influenced by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who support expanding legal immigration. “Tell President Trump to keep his promise to protect the American worker and to keep the Koch Brothers out of the White House,” the ad says.
Business groups have pushed for additional permanent slots for immigrants coming to the United States, saying the demand has increased since the unemployment rate has fallen and companies have struggled to fill jobs.
More than 1 million immigrants are allowed into the United States each year on a permanent basis but only a fraction — 140,000 — come through employment categories. The rest are relatives, refugees or immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. These numbers don’t include immigrants allowed entry for temporary or seasonal work.
By comparison, federal officials estimate they apprehended 100,000 immigrants crossing the border illegally in March. Many of them end up being released because of overwhelming numbers at processing and holding centers. About 12 million immigrants are estimated to be in the United States illegally now.
Kushner’s plan might not lead to a net increase in legal immigration. He is being urged to offset his increases with reductions in other forms of legal immigration. An expansion in the number of legal immigrants allowed into the U.S. for work could be tied to reductions in the number of immigrants sponsored by family members or immigrants who are awarded green cards through the diversity visa lottery program, according to the four people involved in the discussions.
In his February State of the Union address, Trump said he wanted “people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally.”
Later, when he was asked by a reporter if he was changing his policy, he said, “I need people coming in because we need people to run the factories and plants and companies that are moving back in. We need people.”
Kushner is considering increases in the number of low- and high-skilled workers, as well as permanent and temporary workers, according to the four people familiar with the discussions. In public, Trump and his allies have spoken mostly about high-skilled workers.
One prominent Trump ally who has recently weighed in on the subject is David Bossie, a Trump confidant who served in his 2016 campaign.
“We need to welcome temporary high-skilled immigrants with Ph.D.s, Master’s and strong educational qualifications to maintain U.S. economic superiority in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Bossie wrote in a March 24 Fox News op-ed.
But some administration officials are urging Kushner to consider increases for low-skilled and seasonal workers as well.
Several administration officials caution that the effort is still in its early stages with Kushner still trying to gauge whether there’s enough room for a bipartisan compromise that could be passed into law. A Kushner aide referred questions to the White House press office, which didn’t respond.
Trump made cracking down on immigration the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, calling for a border wall and ending an Obama-era program that allows temporary, renewable work permits for so-called Dreamers who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children.
But Trump backed away from his pledge to reduce the number of immigrants when he pushed a plan offering 1.8 million immigrants a chance at citizenship last year, though the proposal also would have increased border security and ended a green card program. It was rejected by a Republican-controlled Congress in February 2018.
The White House has been divided on immigration throughout Trump’s presidency between Miller’s hard-line camp, which largely reflects Trump’s views, and others — including Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump — who hold more moderate positions.
“The different factions in the White House represent different factions among Republicans,” said an immigration activist, who has been to two meetings and speaks to the White House regularly. “It sure looks like the folks who want an expansion are winning.”
Jessica Vaughan, who attended one of Kushner’s meetings and serves as director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, questioned why the administration would be looking at an immigration plan now even as it declares an emergency at the southern border.
“They should be 100 percent on fixing the border crisis and not on other parts of the immigration system,” she said.
In recent weeks, Kushner and his working group — which includes Brooke Rollins, who works in the Office of American Innovation, and Theodore Wold and Ja’Ron Smith, both special assistants to the president for domestic policy — have held smaller more informal meetings, focused solely on whether to expand employment-based programs.
But some informed observers are skeptical: “Everyone continues to look at Jared as the great deal-maker,” said a former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House. “I think people give him too much credit.”
Holding his cards close to the vest, Kushner has not explicitly supported a particular plan in the meetings, according to attendees. Instead, he has encouraged others to express their opinions as a way to try to find a deal.
“The main thing we hope for is an actual proposal to get support … momentum,” said Jorge Lima, senior vice president of policy for Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch brothers and opposes cuts to legal immigration. Representatives of AFP attended two meetings with Kushner.
Draft proposals are being circulated among various agencies, according to one of the people involved in the discussions. Multiple administration officials have told outside groups that a proposal could be released, perhaps by early summer, according to the four people involved in the discussions.
The outside Trump adviser said he is skeptical any proposal will pass because Democrats will ask for a larger immigration deal than just addressing this piece of legal immigration.
“They have to try to figure out what they can get through a Democratic House,” the person said.