President Donald Trump’s choice of Stephen Miller to lead on immigration sets up a potential policy clash with one of the most influential people in the White House, the president’s son-in-law.
The move comes as Trump, focused on challenges in securing the border, sent Jared Kushner back to the drawing board to develop new ideas on immigration reform after being unsatisfied with the results of an initial proposal for a legal immigration framework, according to two sources familiar with the talks.
It’s the latest power shift in just a few months after Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, had emerged as the new figurehead trying to come up with a plan to fix the legal immigration system following his success on criminal justice legislation.
“The clock is ticking on all this stuff,” said a former Trump official who remains in contact with people inside the White House. “There is no way that Stephen can continue to push a very hard right restrictionist policy and for Jared to be pushing a middle-of-the-road, slightly left of center policy, and something doesn’t come in conflict.”
The tension comes as the president purges his top homeland security officials and promises to take a tougher approach on the border with Mexico in the build up to the 2020 campaign season.
“We have the worst laws of any country anywhere in the world, whether it’s catch and release or any one of them,” Trump said Tuesday. “I mean, I could name -- I could sit here and name them, but if you got rid of catch and release, chain migration, visa lottery -- you have to fix the asylum situation; it’s ridiculous. You have people coming in, claiming asylum.”
The Kushner team is expected to try and develop a new proposal on legal immigration reform, but Trump was clearly frustrated with the original legal immigration proposal and felt strongly that the administration’s focus needed to be on border security, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
“They had the meeting. The presentation was made,” said a source familiar with the discussion. “He (Trump) became frustrated. He’s very frustrated over the border crisis also. And he felt that what made it to his desk was just not good enough and not what he wanted to do. He’s very vexed by this border crisis and saw that he needed to give clearer direction. The idea is they’re going to put together something that can become a theme for the administration going forward to reelection.”
Another source familiar with the meeting said the new plan is more in line with “Trump’s pro-worker agenda.”
“After meeting last week things are moving in the opposite direction of immigration increases, betrayal of campaign promises,” said the person familiar with the discussion.
The White House pushed back against the idea of any differences in goals between Miller and Kushner.
“President Trump alone sets immigration policy that’s designed to solve the humanitarian crisis at our border, prevent illegal entry into our country and protect the American people – there’s no daylight between the President’s team as they work to implement that agenda,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told McClatchy
In less than a week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned and Ron Vitiello’s nomination to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement was pulled. On Tuesday, a senior administration official said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency that handles legal immigration, “dropped the ball” for not taking steps to more rigorously scrutinize asylum cases.
“For at least six months we’ve been trying to get USCIS to cross-reference credible fear claims against country condition reports and they haven’t done so,” a senior administration official said.
An advisor to the Department of Homeland Security said the reality is there is “a head on a platter mentality,” regardless of whether the issue is legal immigration or illegal immigration. The advisor said whatever reductions on immigration can’t be made to illegal immigration would likely be made to legal immigration.
“It certainly represents a blow to one of the top legislative goals of Jared who was hoping to use immigration reform to better his personal relationship with some of the top CEOs and tech leaders in America and he now knows that those folks are not going to be able to get anything out of this administration.”
Those who know Miller say not to underestimate the senior advisor to Trump and that he is more strategic than people realize. He will not jeopardize his position in a dispute with Kushner, who as a family member is considered untouchable.
Late last year, Kushner helped kick off a fresh discussion on immigration that reflected a new paradigm in the White House. That new direction was reflected in Trump’s ad-libbed comment about increasing legal immigration during the February State of the Union.
“I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally,” Trump said during that address to a joint session of Congress.
It appeared to be a shift away from the priorities of 2017, Trump’s first year in office, that sought to prevent the influx of foreign workers who could displace American workers in favor of a new approach preferred by more traditional Republicans, particularly those close to the corporate sector who are desperate to attract more foreign workers to fill U.S. factories and tech hubs.
Those concerns about the growing influence of corporate executives on the White House led groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) to launch a new ad reminding Trump of his “Buy American, Hire American” agenda. One of the first images in the ad was of Kushner below the headline: “Can the Koch Network and Jared Kushner Come Up with a Big Immigration Reform Deal?”
Miller’s recent ascendancy on immigration is seen as a return to the core issues that got Trump elected.
Trump won the GOP nomination and the presidency in 2016 by campaigning on a promise to crack down on immigration, build a border wall and end an Obama-era program that offered the so-called Dreamers temporary, renewable work permits.
“Kushner’s involvement was kind of boutique and novel like going out for a Heineken, whereas when you’re talking about Stephen, it’s always Miller time,” said Dan Stein, president of FAIR. “Miller is a known quality and Kushner is sort of an exotic dabbling on issues and trying to explore its dimensions.”