Trump Speech Could Boost His Immigration Proposal
President Trump is expected to seize the bully pulpit during his State of the Union address to present a path forward on expiring protections for children brought to this country illegally by their parents. But since the outline of his plan is already garnering resistance from the GOP’s right flank -- not to mention requisite Democrats – Tuesday night’s speech could test the limits of the president’s power over his own base of support on immigration policy.
With the clock ticking on DACA, the Obama-era executive order Trump rescinded in September, the way in which the president frames his proposal could set the trajectory for ongoing negotiations in Congress. Fractures within the Republican Party on this issue make piecing together a winning coalition difficult, and election year politics bring concerns about depressing the party base in an already challenging midterm climate. GOP leaders have been looking to the president’s guidance, and believe his previously hard-line approach to immigration policy – a signature position in his 2016 campaign -- make him uniquely positioned to chart the course.
The administration has introduced a framework that allows a citizenship pathway for nearly 2 million undocumented immigrants in exchange for $25 billion in border security and significant changes to legal immigration programs, including ending the diversity visa lottery system and curbing family migration. While Democrats are broadly opposed to the latter two provisions, Republicans are divided on the citizenship aspect. Some of the more conservative lawmakers believe their own standing is on the line with the party base, and have equated the president’s plan with amnesty.
“You can’t go to the base and tell them this is a win here. It’s a lie,” said one House GOP aide after the White House briefed congressional staff on the proposal last week.
Virginia Rep. Dave Brat said Trump’s plan would be a “disaster” for the GOP. “I think the White House staff and Senate staff who helped to write that thing took their eye off the ball and off the promises the president made to the American people,” said Brat, who in the 2014 primary defeated Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a supporter of legal status for young immigrants. “This will be a devastating damage for the Republican Party if we go down this road with a huge amnesty that doesn’t get the policy right.”
Conservatives have rallied behind a proposal from House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte that is stricter on enforcement and provides protected status to a smaller number of Dreamers, but not a pathway to citizenship. The legislation would likely repel Democrats needed for any plan to pass the U.S. Senate, but has attracted the support of House lawmakers like Martha McSally, who is running in the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona. One of her opponents, Kelli Ward, denigrated the White House proposal, reflecting the sentiments of the party base in difficult primary elections.
“This is potentially a really dangerous thing for the president because immigration is his issue. If he ends up welching on this, he seriously undermines his political capital,” said Mark Krikorian of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for curbs on legal immigration. “Anything he says that’s going to try to appease the Democrats is going to anger his own voters even more.”
Democrats are also using the State of the Union to drive the debate on immigration. Two dozen lawmakers are bringing so-called Dreamers as guests and are planning to hold a press conference with the young immigrants hours before the speech begins.
The president acknowledged the stakes of his address Monday. “For many, many years, they’ve been talking immigration, they never got anything done. We’re going to get something done, we hope,” Trump told reporters. “Hopefully the Democrats will join us, or enough of them will join us, so we can really do something great, for DACA and for immigration generally.”
Immigration activists say they are watching for the tone the president strikes in his speech. “It’s critical because what the president says from that podium sets a narrative,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “Is he going to be talking about people here to do harm and [who] should not be here? Is he going to conflate MS-13 violent criminals with the immigrant community?”
If the president’s guests for the address are any indication, it is likely he will play up the law-and-order themes of his campaign. The group of people Trump invited to the House gallery include family members of MS-13 gang-related murder victims and a U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement special agent who investigates “transnational criminal organizations, including MS-13.”
Those invitations are likely designed to reassure the president’s base. Dan Holler, a vice president at Heritage Action for America, said grassroots conservatives are “energized” by the debate over immigration. He said there are major risks and rewards for Trump and Republican lawmakers, depending on which proposals move forward.
“If the president gets a substantial win on immigration policy, I think the conservative base is highly motivated heading into 2018,” Holler told RCP before the White House proposal was released last week. (Heritage later criticized it over the citizenship provision.) “By contrast, if the president signs a deal that looks very much like Graham-Durbin, there’s amnesty for multiple millions of people, weak border-security language, that demoralizes the conservative base, the Republican base.”
Still, the administration pointed to endorsements for its proposal from immigration restrictionists such as Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue. “I think conservatives recognize the benefit to really securing our border and helping to fix these long-term problems,” White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short told “Fox News Sunday.” “I think we're going to get widespread support on our side.”
Still, Trump’s push in the State of the Union will be just the starting point. Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford said he told the president that he is best positioned to forge consensus. “I have pushed on the president to say, ‘You're the only one that's heard everybody,’” Lankford said. “He is uniquely in that position to say this is the right way to do it.”