WASHINGTON – White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said Tuesday that President Donald Trump is not expected to extend a March 5 deadline for when legal protection and work permits begin to expire for young immigrants known as “dreamers” – raising the stakes for lawmakers struggling to reach a solution.
“I doubt very much” Trump would extend the program, Kelly told reporters during an impromptu interview at the U.S. Capitol.
He told reporters he was “not so sure this president has the authority to extend it” because the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects roughly 690,000 undocumented immigrants was not based on law.
Kelly’s comments come as lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to grant permanent legal protections to dreamers and resolve other aspects of the immigration system. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday a debate on immigration policy will begin once a new short-term spending agreement is passed later this week.
“I’m going to structure it in such a way that’s fair to everyone,” he told reporters. “And in the Senate, on those rare occasions when we have these open debates, whoever gets to 60 [votes] wins.”
Any immigration legislation will require the support of at least 60 senators to clear procedural hurdles and earn final passage – putting a premium on bipartisan ideas that can prevail in the closely-divided chamber.
McConnell urged senators with ideas to quickly draft them into legislation, because “there’s a good chance by February the 8th it’ll be time to go forward.”
With the clock ticking, Kelly also said he would recommend against Trump signing a short-term extension of DACA approved by lawmakers.
“What makes them act is pressure,” Kelly said of Congress.
But some Republicans said a short-term extension may be their only choice.
“I hope we don’t end up there. But I’m not for ending up with no solution, either,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a lead GOP negotiator on immigration, told reporters.
With lawmakers deadlocked, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the lead Democratic negotiator on immigration, faulted Republicans for stalling.
Durbin said his party is “willing to support a broadly unpopular and partisan proposal – the wall – in exchange for a broadly popular and bipartisan proposal” that would legalize the status of dreamers. “But the president will not take yes for an answer.”
Trump announced the end of DACA in September, giving lawmakers until early March to enact a permanent solution. But a federal court last month ordered the Department of Homeland Security to continue accepting applications for DACA, prompting some lawmakers to say that they would have more time to resolve the issue. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is appealing the court ruling, and unless higher courts rule on the legality of the program, DHS will be required to continue renewing DACA status for recipients even after the March 5 deadline.
On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that “nearly 7 in 10 Americans support an immigration reform package that includes DACA, fully secures the border, ends chain migration & cancels the visa lottery. If D’s oppose this deal, they aren’t serious about DACA-they just want open borders.”
Last month, Trump unveiled a four-part immigration plan and used his State of the Union address to endorse legalizing the status of 1.8 million dreamers – more than the actual number of young immigrants currently protected by DACA.
Kelly called Trump’s endorsement of legalizing a larger pool of immigrants “stunning and no one expected it.”
“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million,” he said. “The difference between [690,000] and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”
Kelly said he couldn’t believe that lawmakers would vote against Trump’s immigration plan given how “generous” it is.
“If before the champions of DACA were members on one side of the aisle, I would say right now the champion of all people who are DACA is Donald Trump – but you would never write that.”
About 800,000 have applied for and received DACA protections since the program began in 2012. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute has estimated that at least 1.3 million people are immediately eligible for the program.
Immigration reform advocates have said in the past that many people brought to the country illegally as children did not apply for DACA because they did not meet the age or educational requirements, couldn’t afford the application fees ranging from $400 to $500 or fear sharing personal information with the federal government.
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump signed a presidential memorandum establishing a “National Vetting Center” to make good on his calls for more rigorous screening of foreign visitors, refugees and others entering the United States.
According to an administration official, the plan will establish a physical, brick-and-mortar headquarters for the vetting center that will centralize different DHS databases and tools for conducting background checks.
The center will be staffed by multiple federal agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, whose officers are stationed at U.S. airports, border crossings and other ports of entry.
Trump has called for “extreme vetting” of visitors from Muslim-majority nations, and the Supreme Court ruled in December that his administration can enforce its broad “ban” on travelers from Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad and North Korea, as well as some categories of travelers from Venezuela.
DHS officials announced last week that the agency will lift a seven-month freeze on refugee admissions for applicants from 11 “high-risk” nations, after they finish implementing new security measures they said would include more in-depth interviews and background checks.
The role that the new National Vetting Center would play in carrying out these checks was not immediately clear.
With talks struggling to progress across the Capitol, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tweeted that he agrees with Kelly that “DACA should NOT be extended by Executive action. To do so would continue President Obama’s Executive overreach. DACA fix must be done through Congress and signed by President.”