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.”
What is clear from conversations with participants and both current and former Trump officials is that Kushner has helped kicked off a fresh discussion on immigration that reflects a new paradigm in the White House. It’s a shift away from priorities of 2017 that sought to prevent the influx of foreign workers who could displace American workers in favor of a new approach preferred by more traditional Republicans, particularly those close to the corporate sector who are desperate to attract more foreign workers to fill U.S. factories and tech hubs.
It’s a different White House than it was a year ago, said a senior administration official. And Kushner, who likes to be part of the early stages of an exploratory process, became frustrated with the past debates on immigration that were focused on what stakeholders opposed. He wanted to help start a new discussion centered around what the sides have in common, a senior administration official said.
“What we want to do is kind of figure out what are the things that everyone agrees on,” the official said. “Where are the areas where there is disagreement and then what we can do is take all that to the president and then let him and the vice president, let them make decisions on what our policy will be.”
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.
“It was Jared Kushner who was the ‘White House intervention’ that got all the parties to agree,” said Eric Miller, a trade consultant who advised the Canadian government in the talks and spoke to officials about Kushner’s role. “The guy fundamentally is a pragmatist. He is someone who is able to listen and mediate certain interests. But the other thing that is indispensable is he has the president’s absolute trust.”
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.
They meet across from the Oval Office in the Roosevelt Room where the president and staff often hold important meetings. Brooke Rollins, who was brought in last year to help Kushner in the Office of American Innovation, helps lead the sessions and introduces Kushner, who gives opening remarks.
“What do you want? What do you support?” Kushner asks, encouraging those involved to share policy papers.
One participant described Kushner as listening a lot and encouraging others to speak. He is less interested in the finer details of immigration policy and focused on reaching a consensus, that participant said. Two people involved said Kushner asks people to talk about what they want instead of what they oppose.
“He’s a smart guy,” one of the participants said. “But he doesn’t care about the issues. He’s there to find out where the deal is. Where is the sweet spot?”
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.
“The president said many times he wants to raise immigration,” the official said.
Such language is concerning to conservative immigration groups. Indeed, between Kushner’s business background and the large number of guests with corporate interests, conservatives are worried that the changes Kushner is pursuing run counter to Trump’s “Hire American” priorities.
“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.
“That is how you have to understand it,” said a former Trump official who remains in contact with White House officials. “And look, Steve may be willing to go along with it, because he’s there for the long game. And there is always other battles to fight. He’s more strategic than people think he is. But there is no doubt that he’s not getting what he wants out of this move.”
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 wouldn’t want people to have their hopes raised too much,” the senior administration official said. “ I wouldn’t want people to get too scared. I just think it’s a function of doing what a White House should do, which is engage with the experts in the community, understand the range of ideas and then take that landscape and give it to the president with some decision points and then we can finalize what the president’s full policy is on the subject.”
Trump has hinted at some of this in recent speeches, including during his State of the Union address.
“I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally,” Trump said during the address to a joint session of Congress.
Many thought he was ad-libbing because the line was not in his prepared remarks. But Trump didn’t back down. When pressed the next day by a small group of reporters over whether his comments reflected a change in policy, Trump said “yes” and then cited low employment numbers and business needs for workers.
“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.
“You’re going into a presidential election,” Gingrich said. “You’re not going to go out there and try to do this and have it fall apart.”
This story was originally published February 20, 2019 5:00 PM.