Franco Ordoñez, McClatchy, February 20, 2019
As debate in public rages about illegal immigration and a border wall, Jared Kushner has been holding private meetings in the West Wing on ways to overhaul the legal immigration system, according to six people familiar with the conversations and documents obtained by McClatchy.
President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law is operating on at least two tracks — the first is working with a small group studying specific ways to redistribute employment visas and the second is helping lead a series of “listening sessions” with about three dozen interest groups important to Trump to see if there is a position that Republicans can rally around before the 2020 elections.
“Jared has proven with the work he did on criminal justice reform and the other work he’s done that he’s willing to be bipartisan,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and an informal adviser to Trump. “He’s willing to listen carefully. And I think he has a very good sense that if you don’t put together an overwhelming majority of Republicans nothing will happen… If it’s possible, they’ll try to move forward.”
The White House says Kushner is working with other top officials on the effort, including Vice President Mike Pence, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Senior Adviser Stephen Miller. They are in Phase Two of a three-part process to see if there is enough consensus behind a policy that can be presented to the president.
Those who have worked with Kushner say he is willing to take on one of the toughest issues in Washington after proving his deal-making savvy by helping to reach bipartisan consensus on criminal-justice legislation and saving a fragile trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. The Mexican government recognized Kushner for his efforts in pulling together the new agreement, a revised NAFTA deal, with the highest honor for foreigners, the Order of the Aztec Eagle.
While Kushner has floated to the advocacy community that Trump was willing to give 1.8 million Dreamers — the young people brought to the United States illegally when they were children — permanent protections from deportation in exchange for a larger border security deal, those involved in talks with Kushner say he’s more focused on reworking the system for legal immigration.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley emphasized to McClatchy that the president’s goals are to ensure the right foreign workers are brought to the country by replacing low skilled immigration with a merit based system that prioritizes immigrants with special skills.
According to meeting agendas obtained by McClatchy, those invited to sessions with Kushner come from some of Trump’s core constituencies in the worlds of religion, law enforcement, agriculture and business. They include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Heritage Foundation, Association of Builders and Contractors, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Council on National Policy, George W. Bush Center and Select Milk Producers.
The senior administration official said the White House is rethinking some policies that it supported before, such as the Sen. Tom Cotton’s RAISE Act, which would institute a merit-based system to determine who is admitted to the country — that the White House continues to support — but would also slash legal immigration.
“There is a real dance going on in the White House on all the legal immigration issues as they work on their vision for reform,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, who is in regular discussions with the administration. “It’s hard for me to tell sometimes what is based on actual policy goals and what is meant to assuage an interest group and who is just being stroked and whose ideas have been convincing to Kushner and his group.”
Adding to that anxiety is the feeling that Kushner has edged out Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief architect on some of the toughest proposals and a favorite in conservative circles, in the policy area on which Miller is best known.
The White House emphasized that discussions are still in the early stages. It could take weeks or months before anything is presented to the president. Trump may also decide not to do anything with the information if they can’t get enough buy in.
“I need people coming in because we need people to run the factories and plants and companies that are moving back in,” Trump said. “We need people.”
Business groups have spent the last few weeks trying to determine whether his words will translate into action. Robyn Boerstling who oversees immigration for the National Association of Manufacturers, which handed the administration a report last week arguing 500,000 jobs in manufacturing need to be filled, sees at least an opening from Trump to talk about the need for workers.
Another smaller working group that Kushner is leading, that also includes Rollins, is investigating specific changes to employment visas. Those include giving less weight to family connections and more weight to potential job skills.
Kushner also is looking at increasing caps on employment-based visas and reworking the temporary visa system to ensure that those who are here on temporary visas don’t automatically get permanent ones.
Gingrich said everyone knows the system needs to be overhauled, but Trump won’t risk alienating his base. The big question is whether there is a package of changes that fits what the country needs, is acceptable to the Republican base and that a substantial number of Democrats can support, he said.