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Immigration hawks ‘frustrated’ over Trump’s border wall obsession

President Donald Trump holds up a picture of a wall during a meeting on border security in the Cabinet Room on Jan. 11. Immigration hard-liners have been disappointed that the president is pursuing his wall at the cost of stricter immigration policies elsewhere. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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Even conservative activists who have made a career of restricting immigration say Trump has gotten carried away by his famous 2016 campaign promise.

Democrats aren’t the only ones who wish President Donald Trump weren’t obsessed with building a border wall.

Even hard-line conservative immigration activists are frustrated with Trump’s relentless focus on a border wall — and are pushing him to embrace what they call more effective enforcement policies as part of any deal with Congress.

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They are working with a half-dozen Republican members of Congress to write additional proposals they hope the White House will support. The suggestions include reducing the number of people sponsored for residency by family members, eliminating the visa lottery system and mandating nationwide E-Verify, an online system that allows businesses to cross-check work authorizations.

“We’re obviously a little frustrated because so much focus has been on barriers, walls and fences,” said Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at NumbersUSA, which supports curbing legal and illegal immigration.

When NumbersUSA outlined 10 steps to bolster immigration enforcement on its website, a border wall didn’t even make the list. The group, which has participated in discussions at the White House this week, sent an email blast to supporters urging them to contact the White House to include other measures.

Democrats who are dug in against funding a wall have said they might agree to some toughened enforcement measures that don’t involve concrete or steel structures, although they generally oppose E-Verify and reducing legal immigration.

Trump has offered the Democrat-controlled House a deal to temporarily protect hundreds of thousands of immigrants who entered the country as children in exchange for $ 5.7 billion for a border wall as a way to break an impasse with lawmakers that has kept the federal government shuttered for 33 days. But immigration groups that have stood with him in the past complain that he is giving too much for too little — a sign that his determination to fulfill an oft-repeated campaign pledge risks costing him even some hard-core supporters.

RJ Hauman, government relations director at Federation for American Immigration Reform, which also wants more enforcement, called Trump’s “build the wall” approach simplistic.

“President Trump was elected to put forth a multi-pronged approach to immigration, not just build a couple hundred miles of border barriers,” he said. “It’s disappointing to see what he’s doing now.”

On Wednesday, Trump hosted a call with 500 state, local and community leaders and later met at the White House with conservative leaders, including those from The Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and Tea Party Patriots, to sell his proposal.

“The president really has no intention of caving on this. That wasn’t spin, that was after the reporters and everything left,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and an attendee at the White House meeting. He added that Trump offered no hint of how he might proceed if, as expected, scheduled votes in Congress on Thursday aiming to reopen the government should fail.

But there are few signs that his latest overture to immigration hard-liners could quell their anger about his Saturday proposal to grant protections from deportation to immigrants who came to the country illegally, according to people familiar with the meetings.

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Hauman, for one, said he is frustrated that Trump’s immigration proposals have gotten “increasingly weak” and that he didn’t rescind an Obama-era program that protected so-called Dreamers immediately, as he promised on the campaign trail.

At the same time, Trump continues to fixate on his vision of a barrier along the southern U.S. border.

“We have to have a wall,” Trump said at the meeting Wednesday. “We have to have a barricade of some kind, a steel barricade, it’s already designed. We’re building a lot of wall as we speak, a tremendous amount, and we’re renovating a lot of the other wall.”

Trump is holding a series of meetings with immigration hard-liners, including one on Tuesday that was not listed on his public schedule, and another one Thursday, according to people familiar with the meetings.

“Ultimately a border wall is less important than interior enforcement, including E-Verify,” said Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review and author of “Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders.” “Clandestine border-crossers are certainly a part of the unauthorized border problem, but they’re a small and shrinking part.”

The activists want the White House to add other policies to the offer that Trump made on Saturday. Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman, both Republicans from Arkansas, have introduced legislation to mandate an E-Verify system. Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) drafted a bill that would end the visa lottery. And Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) wrote a proposal to end extended-family preference category for legal immigration.

Other lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation to end the visa lottery system, enact a biometric exit and entry system, and make changes that some say will make it easier to end the catch-and-release system, according to several people knowledgeable of the proposals.

A wall on the Mexican border was a centerpiece of Trump’s 2016 campaign, in which he promised to crack down on illegal Mexican immigration. He also pledged to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows temporary, renewable work permits for so-called Dreamers who were brought into the U.S. illegally as children. Trump backed away from that pledge last year when his administration announced that it would instead wind down the program over six months and allow certain recipients to apply for a two-year renewal. A court challenge has since kept the program alive.

Steve Cortes, a Trump ally who served on his Hispanic Advisory Council during the 2016 campaign and is serving on his 2020 reelection committee, said he understands the substantive complaints over Trump’s wall obsession, but called it vital to his reelection campaign.

“The wall is so important, both in reality and symbolically, that a streamlined compromise makes sense for now,” he said. “There’s plenty of time to address the larger issues that need reform, such as our often-abused asylum allowances and chain migration.

“I believe the wall all but assures reelection in 2020, and we can’t lose sight of that political necessity,” he added.

The same groups have opposed Trump’s immigration plans before: Last year, they launched TV ads and blasted him on social media for his proposal to offer 1.8 million immigrants a chance at citizenship and allow millions of immigrants to legally reside in the country through family reunification programs.

Trump’s latest offer would provide a three-year extension of protections for DACA recipients and those from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua who fled their countries and have Temporary Protected Status. It would also limit the number of minors who could be granted asylum and pay for 2,750 border agents and law enforcement officials and 75 new immigration judges.

Democrats, too, criticized Trump’s offer and insisted he sign a funding bill to reopen the federal government before they negotiate. The longest shutdown in U.S. government history has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed or forced to work without pay.

“We’ve got to keep this narrow,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. Noorani called for “smart border security that includes a combination of technology, infrastructure and human resources, and then pair that with permanent protections for DACA recipients and TPS recipients,”

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Conservatives insist they aren’t looking for a comprehensive immigration plan — which Congress has failed to pass multiple times, including last year — but rather a deal that provides more enforcement to combat illegal immigration and reduces the number of legal immigrants allowed into the U.S.

Vice President Mike Pence and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner said repeatedly over the weekend that the president’s proposal was intended not only to end the shutdown, but also to be a jumping-off point an for immigration overhaul.

“In this speech, there were a lot of overtures toward broader immigration reform,” Kushner told reporters on Saturday. “The president’s shown on a wide ranges of issues that he’s been able to bring people together and find solutions. I think he would like to see immigration fixed.”

The White House has already started holding working meetings with various groups in the hopes it can strike a larger deal. But Congress failed to pass a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws last year when both chambers were controlled by Republicans making it extremely unlikely a divided Congress would grant Trump a victory as he launches his reelection campaign.

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