WASHINGTON — Most of Donald Trump’s top aides are pushing him to protect young people brought into the country illegally as children, and then use the issue as a bargaining chip for a larger immigration deal despite the president’s campaign promise to deport the people who remain in the U.S. under an Obama administration program.
The White House officials want Trump to strike an ambitious deal with Congress that would protect the immigrants in exchange for legislation to pay for a border wall and more detention facilities, curb legal immigration and implement E-Verify, an online system that allows businesses to check immigration status, according to a half-dozen people familiar with matter, most of whom are involved with the negotiations.
The group includes former and current White House chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and John Kelly, the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, both of whom are presidential advisers, they said. Others who have not been as vocal publicly about their position but are thought to agree include Vice President Mike Pence, who as a congressman worked on a failed immigration deal that called for citizenship; national security adviser H.R. McMaster; and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, who is one the few Democrats in the White House.
Even Steve Bannon, executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart website who was ousted last week as Trump’s chief strategist, was willing to use it as part of a compromise, they said.
On the other side, a smaller group including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his former aides, Stephen Miller, who is Trump’s senior policy adviser, and Rick Dearborn, the White House deputy chief of staff opposes citizenship for the young immigrants, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
Miller was ordered not to brief the president on the issue in recent months, according to two of the people. Miller, a former campaign and transition aide, has briefed Trump many times on the matter so his views are not unknown, but the president has a tendency to side with the last person who speaks to him and Kelly, who became chief of staff three weeks ago, has kept a close watch on who gets to talk to Trump.
“The president knows where Stephen Miller stands,” said a former Trump adviser familiar with the situation who spoke on the conditions of anonymity. “It was discussed in the primary and general election. A new conversation is not going to change anything.”
The 5-year-old program begun by the Obama administration and known as DACA Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protects young people brought into the country illegally as children by their undocumented parents from deportation and allows them to get work permits.
Ten states, led by Texas, have threatened to sue the U.S. government if it does not end the program by Sept. 5. They sent a letter, signed by nine Republican attorneys general and one Republican governor, from states including Kansas, South Carolina and Idaho. Twenty other states, led by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, urged Trump to refuse that request.
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly said he would end the deferred deportation policy, calling it “amnesty” and an abuse of the president’s powers. But after his inauguration, he not only did not against the program, but also pledged to treat the immigrants with “great heart.”
“DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me,” he said in February. “To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids, in many cases not in all cases. In some of the cases they’re having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers too. But you have some absolutely incredible kids, I would say mostly.”
Some Trump aides express similar compassion for the roughly 800,000 immigrants protected by DACA, while others fear that opposing the popular policy could lead to backlash from voters, business executives and donors.
The administration has continued to allow applications for the program and even allow renewal of permits at nearly the rate under the Obama administration, much to the dismay of some Trump supporters who want him to make good on his campaign promise.
In June, the administration rescinded another Obama immigration program Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, often called DAPA that would allow parents in the country illegally with children who are citizens or legal residents to be get renewable work permits.