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President Trump Is Not Backing Down From Controversial Proposal On Sanctuary Cities


President Trump is leaning in on an idea that was initially dismissed by experts in his own administration. That idea is to transfer migrants detained at the border to so-called sanctuary cities. These are cities where local law enforcement limits its cooperation with federal immigration authorities. The idea has outraged Democrats. They say the president wants to use migrants as political pawns.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House to talk about all of this. Hey, Mara.


CHANG: So what's the latest from the president on this idea? I take it he is not backing down.

LIASSON: He's not backing down. He tweeted about it again today. He said that migrants in the country who can no longer be legally detained will be, quote, "given to sanctuary cities and states." Although he said that would be subject to the Department of Homeland Security, so we don't know if it's something that is actually doable right away. We know that the White House and the Department of Homeland Security is looking into whether it can be done financially and legally. And already Democrats in Congress are pushing back against this, saying they haven't appropriated any money to do this.

CHANG: Can we just talk about the politics of all this? Why might this actually be a good political maneuver on Trump's part?

LIASSON: Well, that's debated even inside Republican circles. Trump initially said this was a way to punish Democrats, to kind of own the libs - to say, oh, well, you don't like us holding these asylum-seekers. We'll just send them your way.

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: But practically speaking, he isn't really owning the libs if mayors in those sanctuary cities say they're happy to take migrants. And the migrants themselves would be thrilled to be bussed free of charge to San Francisco instead of kept in a very chilly detention center on the border. But politically, this is a way for him to show that he's taking action, acting unilaterally - that's the way he likes to act - sticking it to his opponents. So in that sense, his base is likely to be supportive of this move. On the other hand, people who find every single thing that Donald Trump does horrifying - they probably won't like it at all. So it's the same old polarization.

CHANG: Right. Now, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told NPR over the weekend that this idea actually is not about punishing Democrats. Instead, it's about giving them an olive branch - an olive branch for what?

LIASSON: Well, that was kind of discordant messaging because Hogan Gidley is suggesting this is an olive branch to maybe convince Democrats that they should negotiate with Donald Trump, where Trump is off saying it's a way to punish liberals.

But the administration has been pretty clear the things they want to do to deal with the recent surge of immigrants in the border. Most of those things need Congress' approval to solve the problem. They would like Congress to make it easier to hold families together in detention. They would like to change a law that deals with unaccompanied minors. And they want to close something that they call the credible fear loophole. The administration feels it's too easy for asylum-seekers to come to the border and say they have a credible fear of being killed if they stayed in their home countries. And the administration wants to change the criteria for when a credible fear claim should be believed.

CHANG: Well, given how many challenges there are at managing the problems at the border, is there a risk for Democrats if they don't engage with the White House now to try to address the situation down there?

LIASSON: Potentially yes. You know, if the issue is framed in terms of border security, I think that's an advantage for the administration. If the debate is all about putting children in cages, using immigrants as political pawns, building a wall that's very unpopular, then Donald Trump is on the defensive.

But I do think that if Democrats were to say what they'd want to do at the border, they would probably say we need more judges. We need more detention facilities. We need to streamline the process. We need to send more money to Central America, money that the president has now taken away, to Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala to try to mitigate the forces in those countries that are causing people to flee. So you can imagine two sides coming together in a negotiation in an alternative universe...

CHANG: (Laughter).

LIASSON: ...But not the political universe that we have right now.

CHANG: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.