President Trump said for the first time Wednesday that he is open to a path to citizenship for some younger undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” in an immigration deal being negotiated by Congress, a potential breakthrough in the stalled talks.
In an impromptu discussion with reporters, Trump emphasized that his support of a citizenship path for about 690,000 immigrants would be contingent on security $25 billion for a wall on the southwest border with Mexico and another $5 billion for additional border security upgrades. The president also is expected to continue his push to curb legal immigration as part of a deal.
But his remarks signaled what could prove to be a major shift for president who ran a hardline immigration campaign and last week rejected a bipartisan Senate proposal.
White House aides said the president would release a complete “framework” on Monday. Trump said that plan likely would grant provisional legal status to those immigrants covered by an Obama-era deferred action program that he terminated last fall. That group would then be eligible to pursue full citizenship over a period of 10 to 12 years.
“We’re going to morph into it,” Trump said of citizenship. “It’s going to happen–over a period of 10 to 12 years. If somebody’s done a great job and worked hard. It keeps the incentive to do a great job. … I think it’s a nice thing have incentive, after a period of years, being able to become a citizen.”
Congress members have expressed exasperation that Trump has not clearly articulated his demands and vacillated over the past several weeks, at times signaling he was open to a deal but then reversing himself after speaking with aides or immigration hardliners. A senior White House official said the framework would be intended to give lawmakers a clearer set of guidelines to help break the impasse.
Lawmakers face a Feb. 8 deadline for a must-pass spending bill to keep open the government, but Democrats and some Republicans have said they will not support a long-term deal that does not address the future of DACA. The impasse over immigration led to a partial government shutdown this week before lawmakers agreed to a three-week funding extension.
Yet Trump has reneged on previous statements about the dreamers, who have lived in the country illegally since they were children. During his campaign, Trump promised to end Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that offered two-year work permits to dreamers on his first day in office. But after he was sworn in last year, Trump did not act, instead assuring dreamers that he would work out a deal to protect them. After Texas and several other states threatened to sue the Trump administration over the program, Trump announced in September he would terminate DACA, but granted lawmakers six months to work out a solution before the bulk of work permits begin to expire March 5.
During the discussion with reporters, Trump joked to Chief of Staff John F. Kelly that he hoped to have a deal by the time he got back from a two-day trip to Davos, Switzerland, for an economic forum. Kelly, who initially was scheduled to travel with the White House delegation, will remain in Washington to keep negotiating with Congress on immigration.
White House officials Trump’s initial proposal for citizenship would be limited to the 690,000 who were enrolled in DACA when Trump terminated the program. However, Democrats and some Republicans have pushed to extend legal protections to a far larger group of dreamers – up to 1.7 million or more. White House officials said that would be left to Congress to negotiate.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has drafted a bipartisan immigration plan along with Sen Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), welcomed Trump’s statement Wednesday as a sign of “presidential leadership on immigration.”
“President Trump’s support for a pathway to citizenship will help us get strong border security measures as we work to modernize a broken immigration system,” Graham said in a statement. “With this strong statement by President Trump, I have never felt better about our chances of finding a solution on immigration.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an immigration hawk whom Trump has consulted during the negotiations, said on Twitter that a path to citizenship for dreamers “must be done responsibly, guaranteeing a secure & lawful border & ending chain migration, to mitigate the negative side effects of codifying DACA.”
Democrats said they had not been consulted about what the White House plans to release on Monday, according to senior aides.
The White House announcement on immigration came as 35 senators gathered late Wednesday to figure out how the chamber will proceed on its immigration debate. Meeting in the hearing room for the Senate Armed Services Committee, the group of Democrats and Republicans asked Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Durbin to serve as a clearinghouse and sort out the parameters and timetable for the debate. Both senators are the deputy leaders of their respective parties and sit on a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee on immigration policy.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who co-chaired a series of meetings before and during the three-day government shutdown over the weekend in an attempt to end the impasse, will continue hosting meetings on the subject in the coming days, according to Graham.
“We have created a process for input. The goal is to create an output that’s good for America,” Graham said in an earlier statement.
Earlier Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the new White House immigration plans will “represents a compromise that members of both parties can support. We encourage the Senate to bring it to the floor.”
White House aides said the framework is intended to give Congress clear guidance about what Trump would accept in an immigration. Late last year, the White House sent a long list of immigration principles that lacked specifics. Trump said during a meeting with a large group of lawmakers at the White House two weeks ago that he would sign whatever plan Congress sent him.
A bipartisan group in the Senate led by Durbin and Graham presented a proposal to Trump last week that attempted to address his concerns. It included $1.6 billion for a wall and offered a path to citizenship for dreamers. Trump has rejected that plan. The president also didn’t reach a deal with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who reportedly offered far more money for the border wall.
The lack of a deal on immigration led to an impasse over a spending bill and resulted in a partial government shutdown Saturday before lawmakers voted Monday to extend funding three more weeks. If they fail to agree on a spending plan by Feb. 8, the government could shut down again.
“We’ve taken into account all of the conversations that we’ve had, both at the presidential and the staff level, and tried to incorporate that into what we think addresses all of the different things that we’ve heard from the various stakeholders throughout the last several months,” Sanders said.
“After decades of inaction by Congress, it’s time we work together to solve this issue once and for all,” she added. “The American people deserve no less.”
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.