Kushner acts as sounding board on legal immigration reform

Trump's son-in-law involved in internal discussion

Al Drago-Pool/Getty Images

Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner listens during a Cabinet meeting on May 9, 2018.

(CNN) - As President Donald Trump strips some Central American countries of aid and denounces the influx of migrants at the southern border, his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has been acting as a sounding board for internal discussions on reforms to the nation's legal immigration system.

Over the course of two months, a number of immigration groups and business groups have gathered at the White House to discuss a range of topics related to legal immigration, including employment-based visas, temporary worker programs, the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and moving toward a merit-based immigration system, several sources familiar with the meetings told CNN.

"The President asked the Vice President, Jared, and (Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen) Nielsen to lead negotiations on border security funding. They included a series a meetings at the White House with various stakeholder groups throughout the process," a senior administration official told CNN.

A separate source familiar with the meetings said White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, who has often acted as the leading adviser on Trump's immigration policies, is "being consulted but is not intimately involved."

Brooke Rollins, a senior staffer at the White House Office of American Innovation, has also played a role in the meetings, a meeting attendee said.

The first sessions got underway in January amid the government shutdown and ran for about an hour and a half, during which groups presented their thoughts and ideas for legal immigration reform. The focus was not the President's signature border wall, but rather the legal immigration system, said Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates reduced legal immigration.

"Most of the focus was on employment visas. Most people talked about the need for skilled immigrants, although I wouldn't say there was full consensus in the room that was needed," she said, adding that Kushner appeared engaged throughout the discussion.

"He asked questions; he clearly had been hearing a lot about our system and was familiar with how it works and what the issues are and he asked specific questions about specific policies," Vaughan added.

Center for Immigration Studies was one of many groups to attend meetings. Sources familiar with the discussions say the meetings have included, among other attendees, representatives from hard-line immigration groups such as NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the bipartisan Latino political group League of Latin American Citizens, business interest groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, Associated Builders and Contractors, conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation as well as libertarian-leaning, Koch-funded political groups including Americans for Prosperity.

Two sources familiar with the White House meetings likened the conversations to those Kushner convened during his foray into criminal justice reform. Last year, Kushner served as the White House's main negotiator on the policy, steering a tough-on-crime president to signing the First Step Act, a major bipartisan criminal justice reform bill.

In 2017, prior to his most recent effort on legal immigration reform, Kushner faced scrutiny when his family touted the EB-5 immigrant investor program in China, which has been criticized for being a pass for wealthy foreign citizens to essentially buy American green cards. The Kushners' company subsequently apologized for name dropping Jared Kushner and his White House role in pitching the program.

Since the meetings got underway in January, a proposal appears to be taking shape, according to a source familiar with discussions. It's unclear, however, if and when a proposal would be released.

One meeting attendee said members of Congress relayed to their organization that the White House has been in touch about working on a larger legislative plan regarding legal immigration. However, further details on a plan or proposal remain unclear.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The proposal comes as the White House also considers appointing an immigration czar.

Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, and Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia who is also a CNN political commentator, are among those being considered for the job, a source familiar with discussions told CNN.

The President, in recent months, has indicated that he wants more people to legally immigrate to the US, receiving pushback from advocates of reduced migration.

During his second State of the Union address in February, Trump brought it up briefly.

"I want people to come into our country, in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally," Trump said.

Since the address, Trump has continued to publicly comment on the need for legal immigration.

In his most explicit terms yet, Trump, he told the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board at the White House in March: "We're opening it up. We have to bring people in. We want them to be people based on merit and we want them to come in legally. You've seen what's going on at the border."

Immigrants make up 13.7% of the US population, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. In fiscal year 2017, more than 1 million immigrants became lawful permanent residents. In 2016, there were around 2 million immigrants on various temporary visas living in the US, like students and temporary workers, according to the institute.

In their meetings at the White House, American business groups have asked the Trump administration to ease up on legal immigration to improve what they see as a worker shortage.

"He knows the country needs more immigration," one business group source familiar with the discussions said. "Where we intersect with that is we're short a half a million workers."

But groups who support reduced immigration, such as FAIR, are pushing back on the idea.

"We expect President Trump to do the right thing and not abandon his original promise to reduce immigration and tighten up foreign labor admissions. Healthy wage growth is key to a successful administration and a proposal built on immigration increases will undercut that," said RJ Hauman, government relations director at FAIR.

"Anyone who tells the President that caving to cheap labor interests on immigration won't come at a high political cost does not have his best interests in mind."

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