Why the White House Can’t Clarify What it Wants in Exchange for DACA

DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is making the rounds on Capitol Hill to garner support for her department’s priorities in any agreement that might be reached on DACA. But according to Sen. Claire McCaskill, she can’t provide any assurances that the president would support the things she’s asking legislators to consider.

McCaskill told reporters that Nielsen didn’t commit that she spoke for the President but didn’t say she wasn’t able to, either.

“She didn’t say she couldn’t,” McCaskill said. “She said, ‘I understand what you’re saying.’ “

That’s about as clear as mud, isn’t it?

Nielsen is reportedly working off of a document the White House produced back in October that lists the administration’s priorities for any deal to protect the Dreamers. It goes well beyond the three items that are usually listed as requirements for Trump to sign off on a deal (funding for the border wall, ending family-based immigration visas and ending the Diversity Visa program).

A thorough reading of the document demonstrates that in addition to changes to our current legal immigration system, it would unleash both the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to further implement their “deport ’em all” strategies when it comes to undocumented immigrants.

As an example, there is a whole list of items that focus on making it easier to detain and deport what they refer to as “unaccompanied alien minors.” One of them suggests the termination of something called the “Flores Settlement Agreement” that was reached in 1997.

The Flores Settlement Agreement (Flores) imposed several obligations on the immigration authorities, which fall into three broad categories:

1. The government is required to release children from immigration detention without unnecessary delay to, in order of preference, parents, other adult relatives, or licensed programs willing to accept custody.

2. If a suitable placement is not immediately available, the government is obligated to place children in the “least restrictive” setting appropriate to their age and any special needs.

3. The government must implement standards relating to the care and treatment of children in immigration detention.

There is an equally odious list of items related to asylum seekers as well as some that loosen legal definitions related to “inadmissible aliens” and more funding for detention.

Items that clearly came from AG Sessions have to do with codifying his attempts to crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities” and push local law enforcement into cooperating with ICE. Finally, there are a couple of items that obviously come from the State Department, but it doesn’t appear that Tillerson is taking an active role in pushing for them.

All of this helps to clarify why John Kelly has been so adamantly opposed to the various agreements that have been reached when it comes to DACA. I suspect that what is contained in this document are items that he found to be barriers to deportation during his tenure as DHS Secretary. Even if there is a bipartisan agreement on things like funding for the border wall and ending the Diversity Lottery program, Kelly will continue to push for changes that will allow this administration to deport more undocumented immigrants. That is what Nielsen was attempting to accomplish with her visits to Capitol Hill.

It is becoming increasingly clear that different factions within this administration are attempting to use Dreamers as a tool to reach their own nativist agendas. I suspect that this is how things break down (with a lot of room for potential overlap):

    • Trump—funding for the border wall
    • Miller—changes to the legal immigration system
    • Kelly—changes that will facilitate the detention and deportation of more undocumented immigrants
    • Sessions—crack-down on sanctuary cities

One of the reasons that Majority Leader McConnell doesn’t know what the White House wants from the negotiations over DACA is because there are battles going on within the administration over these various priorities.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.