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How immigration became the new infrastructure week

President Donald Trump holds up photographs of border wall construction as he speaks to members of the National Border Patrol Council on Friday, | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images In May 2019, President Donald Trump unveiled a much-anticipated proposal to overhaul America’s immigration system and launched a quiet campaign to build support. It’s gone nowhere — and…

President Donald Trump holds up photographs of border wall construction as he speaks to members of the National Border Patrol Council on Friday, | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In May 2019, President Donald Trump unveiled a much-anticipated proposal to overhaul America’s immigration system and launched a quiet campaign to build support.

It’s gone nowhere — and few believe it ever will.

The White House is still regularly holding meetings with lawmakers, business leaders and activists about its 600-page bill. But none of them see any hope for it to pass. Some outright oppose the efforts. And no one has stepped forward to introduce the legislation, in part because the White House insists on retaining control over any changes, according to three people familiar with the situation.

Within the administration, a divide remains over the offering — one Homeland Security official mocked it as a “silly bill.” Outside the administration, some of the once-sympathetic immigration activists are taking the rare step of opposing the White House’s efforts through TV ads and email blasts. Even business groups that broadly support the thrust of the bill prefer more narrow legislation that has a better chance of passing.

“The substance is flawed because it doesn’t address the most important reforms that the president’s supporters want to see,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict immigration restrictions, and has been in touch with the White House on the proposal. “The strategy is flawed because they are trying to do too many things.”

Yet even with impeachment bruises still fresh and the 2020 election looming, the White House has no plans to slow its behind-the-scenes overtures to lawmakers and interest groups.

Trump, who has made immigration a top priority of his presidency, plans to push an issue that has long confounded Washington as he runs for reelection over the next nine months. With the impeachment trial behind him, Trump himself will soon determine whether to push for the bill this year or in a potential second term, according to a White House official.

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser and the plan’s architect, has privately expressed confidence that the legislation can eventually move, according to half a dozen people familiar with the situation.

“Before you go to battle, you have to do preparation,“ Kushner said in an interview with POLITICO on Friday. “We have done the heavy lifting, the hard prep work. So if the Hill develops an appetite to move forward on an immigration deal, we will be ready. Ultimately, the president will consult with the leadership on the Hill and then decide, do we release the plan now, or do we put it out after the election.”

But across Washington, immigration is becoming the new “infrastructure week,” a punchline used to indicate a subject the Trump administration repeatedly and cheerfully resurrects, even when everyone knows it will never amount to any policy change.

A White House official said the bill has already garnered the backing of 22 GOP senators, including Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and David Perdue of Georgia — and predicts it will end up receiving support of nearly all 53 Republican senators. But others involved with the negotiations dispute those numbers.

“It’s a super hard problem, but our job is to try and tackle hard problems,“ Kushner said. “It’s easy to say what hasn’t been done, can’t be done and so often the media declare the president’s agenda items to be impossible — like it did with [United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement], the China trade deal, criminal justice reform or building a wall. But time and time again the president proves them wrong.”

On Friday, Trump met with members of the Border Patrol Council, a labor group, where he praised efforts that have reduced the number of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. And he made a surprise mention of the legislation in his State of the Union address to Congress last week.

“We are working on legislation to replace our outdated and randomized immigration system with one based on merit, welcoming those who follow the rules, contribute to our economy, support themselves financially, and uphold our values,” Trump said.

Immigrant advocates say Trump is only pushing the issue so he can point to an immigration plan during his reelection campaign. The Supreme Court is also expected to rule this summer on Trump’s decision to wind down the Obama-era “dreamers” program that gave work permits and quasi-legal status to foreigners who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

“They want to muddy the waters,” said an immigration advocate who is familiar with White House conversations with lawmakers and activists. “It’s all politics.”

Trump made cracking down on immigration the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, calling for a border wall and an end to the dreamers program.

But once in office, Trump’s immigration moves have been contradictory. His administration has implemented harsh travel restrictions on numerous majority-Muslim nations and cut refugee caps, but he has also touted plans to increase the number of overall immigrants and offer citizenship to those here illegally, a move most Trump-friendly immigration groups oppose. Trump has also occasionally surprised his supporters by discussing the need to treat immigrants with “heart.”

Trump attempted a major rewrite of the nation‘s immigration laws in 2018. The effort quickly died in Congress amid a backlash from immigration hawks, who blasted it for protecting millions of immigrants in the United States illegally.

The updated plan unveiled in May 2019 was significantly scaled back from that first initiative, though some have still dubbed it “comprehensive immigration reform.” Trump can‘t accomplish these goals without Congress, the White House official said.

“We‘ve done everything we can by executive order,“ the official said. “Everything we can do unilaterally we have done.“

The proposal would admit more high-skilled, well-educated immigrants while reducing the number of people who enter the U.S. based on family ties or whether their native country has a low rate of immigration. It also includes measures to boost security at the borders, including stricter visa screenings at ports of entry and tighter asylum rules, and expand the implementation of E-verify, an electronic system that allows businesses to check work authorization of employees. It would also restructure DHS and create a so-called immigration czar.

Chris Chmielenski, deputy director at NumbersUSA, which supports immigration restrictions, said his group opposes the legislation primarily because it doesn’t reduce the overall numbers of immigrants or make E-verify mandatory.

NumbersUSA has launched a six-figure TV ad buy and sent multiple email alerts to its 2.5 million supporters asking them to contact the White House in opposition to the bill. “Please send a message to President Trump and urge him to reduce the number of foreign workers coming to the United States,” reads one of the emails.

“Democrats and Republicans are opposed. I don’t think some people in the White House fully understood they would be,” Chmielenski said. “It’s more difficult of an issue than they thought.”

More than a 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 individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The numbers don’t include temporary or seasonal workers.

Business groups want the Trump administration to create more permanent slots for immigrants coming to the United States, saying companies have struggled to fill jobs as the unemployment rate has fallen. The latest plan does that and, according to the White House official, raises wages. But business groups remain skeptical such a massive proposal can get through a divided Congress in an election year after past failures.

“Our belief is the more that’s in there, the more difficult it will be to agree on,” said Michael Bellaman, president and CEO of Associated Builders and Contractors, which had two meetings with the White House and supports the administration’s broader efforts.

Kushner began working on the plan in early 2019, first gathering input from 50 Republican stakeholders and studying plans in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to craft a bill. He tasked Stephen Miller, a senior adviser, and Kevin Hassett, then the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, to prioritize concerns and make the plan “pro-labor, pro-worker“ while keep the immigration numbers status quo. Kushner later tried to sell the bill as part of what the White House called a “soft launch“ after Trump‘s address.

Kushner trekked to Capitol Hill to speak to Senate Republicans at one of their weekly lunches, urging them to get behind the plan so the party could show Americans what they support. More recently, he has spoken to individual senators of both parties. And in recent days, his team briefed the House Freedom Caucus, a hard-line conservative faction close to Trump, and the Border Security Caucus on the plan, according to a person familiar with the situation.

He and his working group — including Brooke Rollins of the Office of American Innovation, and two special assistants to the president for domestic policy, Theodore Wold and Ja’Ron Smith — met with dozens of advocacy groups, including those focused on conservative issues, immigration, business and agriculture.

The groups have run the gamut, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, which both favor more high-skilled immigrants, to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to reduce overall immigration, to the political group League of United Latin American Citizens.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said Kushner also called him looking for support. But Krikorian said he rebuffed the overtures, telling Kushner he couldn’t back a plan that doesn’t reduce the number of overall immigrants.

The specifics of the White House’s 600-page proposal are not all known because the bill has not been released publicly. But Trump revealed the contours of the plan during a Rose Garden speech last May. The proposal would create a points-based immigration system that would score applicants on attributes including education, English-speaking ability and an existing offer of employment. During his remarks, Trump took an uncharacteristically mild tone on immigration, calling America “welcoming” to immigrants.

Since then, Trump has said little and the White House has been reluctant to even show the bill to some of those being consulted about it.

The administration is concerned that if it publicly reveals the proposal, it will be immediately subsumed by a heated debate about “amnesty” for those already in the country illegally, according to Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the conservative organization known for its public records lawsuits.

Fitton, who declined to speak about his White House briefing about immigration, said the administration should simply release the offer. “If it’s an issue they want to talk about,” he said, “one way to talk about it is to put something out there.”

A person who works in the business world and is familiar with the proposal said the White House was wary after receiving criticism in the past when it unveiled proposals without first getting buy-in.

“The legislative calendar is a challenge,” the person said. “I think it’s going to be really hard to jump-start bipartisan conversations today, right now. … There is going to be some time and healing on every issue.”

Trump isn’t the only president to flounder when it comes to immigration. Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush failed to push through major immigration overhauls despite considerable interest. Still, Trump is expected to make immigration a focus heading into his reelection campaign.

“There is zero chance this proposal could become law in an election year with a divided Congress. That ship has sailed,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to reduce the number of immigrants in the country. “However, things could be different in 2021, after the American people choose between an immigration system that puts them first and whatever open borders prescription Democrats settle on.”

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