Dems fear ‘Stephen Miller ambush’ on immigration
President Trump’s inflammatory remarks against immigrants from a host of developing nations have sparked outrage amid talks on the fate of so-called Dreamers, just as lawmakers from both parties were claiming progress on a hard-fought deal.
But supporters of the immigration package say the deeper threat to an agreement is not the president, but the conservatives in both the White House and Congress fighting to kill the deal before it can pick up steam — an effort they’re calling the “Stephen Miller ambush,” referencing a top White House aide.
The leading negotiators on an immigration package — Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — were invited to the White House Thursday to huddle with Trump on their emerging agreement to combine protections for Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, with tougher border security and new restrictions on immigration.
They were reportedly surprised to find a handful of Republican lawmakers joining the meeting, including Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.), as well as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), all immigration hard-liners who are opposed to the Graham-Durbin framework, which they deem too soft on enforcement.
“Graham and Durbin expect to have a meeting, they show up and there’s this anti-immigrant cast of characters there. And that was obviously designed by Stephen Miller to try to kill the deal,” said a senior Democratic aide.
There’s no love lost between immigration reform advocates and Miller, a senior adviser to Trump long known for his tough approach to immigration policy. As an aide to former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), now Trump’s attorney general, Miller built a reputation on Capitol Hill as a staunch opponent of any effort to provide legal protections for those living in the country illegally. He’s also the author of a White House memo demanding a host of enforcement provisions as part of any agreement to protect those eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama-era initiative providing temporary benefits to certain immigrants brought to the country illegally as kids. Trump dismantled the program in September but is urging Congress to enact a legislative fix, setting a deadline of March 5.
Amid Thursday’s meeting, Trump allegedly spurned a bipartisan effort to allow new immigrants — even in reduced numbers — from African nations, Haiti and El Salvador, characterizing them as “shithole countries.” The comments sparked an immediate outcry from lawmakers in both parties and has consumed much of the media’s attention over the last 36 hours.
But the more damaging development to come from the meeting, the aide said, “was the Stephen Miller ambush.”
“Everyone expects Trump to say stupid things, and obviously this is a new low,” the aide said.
“But I think the more unhelpful thing is that Stephen Miller is feeling empowered and is apparently running the White House in terms of immigration policy, and has the ability to create this ambush situation.”
The White House on Friday rejected that narrative, saying Trump had requested all the participants at the White House meeting. The president first spoke directly to Graham and Durbin by phone on Thursday, inviting them to the Oval Office later in the day to discuss their DACA proposal, according to a senior White House official. Afterward, he asked his staff to “get Cotton and Purdue to come because they represent different viewpoints,” the official said.
“And then he called [Rep.] Kevin McCarthy [R-Calif.] and he said, ‘I want some House folks to come as well.’ And then they picked up the conversation in the Oval Office,” the official said. “I couldn’t tell you if Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin knew who was going to be in the meeting when they walked in. But the president definitely invited them.
“If they were surprised then they were surprised.”
Also attending the meeting were Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a South Florida immigration reform advocate, and other members of the White House team, including Miller, chief of staff John Kelly, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and her acting chief of staff, Chad Wolf.
The offices of Durbin and Graham did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
The meeting came at a crucial time in the debate over the future of DACA. Both sides say they want to secure protections for the almost 800,000 immigrants who have benefitted from the program, but the debate has become entangled in sharp disagreements over the scope of the new immigration restrictions being pushed by Trump and conservatives on Capitol Hill.
The Graham-Durbin proposal attempts to thread the needle, coupling the DACA protections with new funding for border security as well as efforts to rein in family migration and scale back the diversity visa program — a four-tier approach demanded by Trump. But the proposal has done little to appease conservatives. Cotton has called the Graham-Durbin proposal “a joke,” and Trump this week also rejected the package.
“There was a deal proposed that didn’t meet our criteria, that didn’t really make the kind of progress on these four topics that we’re looking to make some sort of negotiation on,” the White House official said.
Durbin, undeterred, is vowing to push ahead with his proposal, which he and Graham plan to unveil next week, challenging GOP leaders to consider it.
“If the Republican leadership has a better alternative, bring it forward,” he told MSNBC on Friday. “If they don’t, for goodness sakes, give us a vote.”
He said he’d be calling colleagues in both parties “begging” for their support.
Yet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he won’t consider any bill that doesn’t have Trump’s support. And the opponents of the bill are expecting him to follow through. Perdue laughed when asked if there’s a DACA deal.
“They may have an agreement among themselves,” he said. “There’s no agreement with the president … so there’s no deal yet.”
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a progressive pro-immigration advocacy group, accused Miller, Cotton and Goodlatte of conspiring to undermine any bipartisan DACA fix.
“They want to derail and defeat anything that helps Dreamers,” he said, adding that a competing House bill introduced by Goodlatte “was designed and primed to destabilize and undercut the bipartisan deal.”
That bill, co-authored by Reps. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), Michael McCaul (R-Texas) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), shares many of its enforcement provisions with Miller’s White House memo.
Labrador told reporters Wednesday that the bill could garner the necessary votes to pass the House, especially following the GOP’s successful passage of tax reform, if Republican leadership puts its weight behind it.
“[Leadership] should put it on the floor,” said Labrador. “Their job now is to help us whip the conference to make sure this happens. That’s the only thing that could unify the Republican conference.”
“I think we could for sure get 218 Republicans,” he added.
Others say that’s quite unlikely.
“You’re not getting 218 [votes], that’s not happening,” said one Republican aide with knowledge of the talks. The aide said the bill is too heavy on enforcement provisions and doesn’t give deportation relief to enough people to win 218 GOP votes.
“[Goodlatte] will say he didn’t put in the kitchen sink, which is technically correct, but it was pretty close,” said the aide.
Even if the Goodlatte bill does get through the House, it’s unlikely to draw the necessary nine Democrats to pass the Senate.
Jordain Carney contributed.