- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The script on the immigration debate flipped once again this week. Now it’s a Republican president offering to reach a deal on a grand bargain that includes legalizing illegal immigrants, and it’s Democrats who are balking, saying they can’t trust the president to be an honest broker.

President Trump made overtures Tuesday in a meeting with television news anchors, saying he would be open to a bill that grants Dreamers citizenship rights and gives legal status to most other illegal immigrants, though without citizenship.

He followed it up Tuesday in his address to Congress with a less-concrete call for “real and positive immigration reform,” though he shied away from specifics in favor of broad goals: “to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security and to restore respect for our laws.”

The problem is that Democrats just don’t trust him.

“We’ve been through this movie before — you guys just fall for the bait,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

Activists called it everything from a “fake-out” to a “fog machine.”

Democrats’ reaction was remarkably similar to that of House Republican leaders in 2014, when they balked at President Obama’s overtures on immigration. Republicans said they didn’t trust Mr. Obama with an immigration deal because they doubted he would enforce whatever penalties they wrote.

Just as Republicans then were responding to their party’s right flank, Democrats now are faced with an increasingly strident left flank — particularly immigrant rights groups — that doesn’t want anyone from the party working with Mr. Trump, particularly on immigration.

“We’ve seen this movie before. After a relentless barrage of vicious anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric, Trump pretends to be almost normal, and too many fall for it,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice.

He said he put the chances of Mr. Trump striving for an immigration deal at “virtually none.”

Immigrant rights groups said Democrats should pursue a strategy of resistance rather than cooperation.

Trump has proven his intentions with his actions, and they are dangerous,” said Cristina Jimenez, co-founder of United We Dream, which advocates for youths brought to the U.S. illegally as children, known as Dreamers. “It is time to continue building sanctuaries of safety where all people targeted by Trump and his supporters can be safe and thrive.”

Activists are particularly salty after believing they were about to win the issue in 2013, when a broad legalization bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support on a 68-32 vote. But Democrats never sent that bill to the Republican-controlled House. Republicans declined to write their own bill, saying they didn’t have faith in Mr. Obama to enforce their legislation.

Mr. Trump appeared to dangle the chance for a new debate in Tuesday’s sit-down with the news anchors, hours ahead of his speech. He said he saw the chance for a deal, but only if both Democrats and Republicans were ready to relent some.

“The time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides,” he said.

He didn’t go that far in his speech to Congress. Democrats and activist groups said Mr. Trump was talking big in private but failing to deliver in public. Instead, they said, his speech was stridently anti-immigrant.

“The president is lying when he says he supports immigration reform in any meaningful sense,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat and a leading voice on immigration for his party.

Mr. Trump seemed to waffle during the election campaign, too. At one point, he said all illegal immigrants would have to go. But other times he seemed open to legalization once the borders were secure.

His aides repeatedly reined him in — and seemed to do so again Wednesday.

“The president’s comments yesterday were that if we can get a bill, he would like to get that done,” said press secretary Sean Spicer.

“One of the anchors said that if anyone can get a deal it would be you. Obviously, he was pleased with that,” Mr. Spicer said. “But it’s true, and he recognizes that a solution, a comprehensive solution, has eluded our nation for a long time, and it’s a big problem. And if he can get it consistent with his principles, he will.”

Activists said Mr. Trump could build trust by renouncing his campaign promises and reversing his early executive orders that allow deportation agents to enforce existing laws.

They also objected to his proposals for changing the legal immigration system to merit-based selection criteria.

The New York Immigration Coalition said the current system, which is skewed toward family-based petitions that allow immigrants to sponsor parents and siblings, is “the fabric of our country.”

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

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