With a Feb. 8 deadline for a government spending deal, and with the expiration of Obama-era protections for young immigrants looming in March, the coming days could force a reckoning on an issue that helped propel Trump into office and has deadlocked the nation for a generation.
Immigration advocates and their allies in Congress will have to decide whether to accept a dramatic scaling back of ways to gain a foothold in this country — including a visa lottery system and family-sponsorship programs — to save the teenagers and young adults known as "dreamers."
"A 10- to 12-year path is much too long," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group America's Voice, referring to the time it would take for dreamers to become citizens under the White House plan.
While he described other aspects of Trump's proposal as untenable and vowed to fight them, Sharry said the 12-year wait for citizenship might be unavoidable if a deal is to be made. "Our priority is to get it passed into law, and with Trump and the Republicans in charge, this may be the only way," he said.
Although he can be wildly unpredictable, Trump has been steadfast in his push to arrest and deport immigrants, including longtime residents with jobs and deep community ties whose U.S.-born children are American citizens.
Only the dreamers, who were given work permits and shielded from deportation under Obama, have given Trump pause because they arrived as children and did not knowingly break the law. Still, in September, he ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, calling it executive overreach and telling Congress to pass legislation protecting dreamers.
Trump wants the proposal he unveiled Thursday to become the basis for such a bill. Among its provisions, the plan offers dreamers an unattractive choice: They can become citizens, but their parents — who crossed the border seeking more opportunities for them — could be apprehended and deported.
"I can't imagine a world in which I have to live without my parents," said Fernanda Herrera, 23, a college graduate from Birmingham whose parents brought her from Mexico and own a restaurant in rural Alabama. "When we use the term 'dreamer' . . . our parents had these dreams for us before we could even speak or walk. My dreams are a direct reflection of my parents' dreams."
Conservative advocates have been rattled by what they consider Trump's unexpected displays of generosity, including potential citizenship for more than twice as many young immigrants as were protected by DACA.
Many are furious that Trump's proposal does not require all businesses to adopt E-Verify, a government program that checks workers' legal status before they can obtain jobs. Without it, they say, the nation will see a repeat of what happened after Congress approved an amnesty for undocumented immigrants in 1986: Millions more will find their way across the border or overstay their visas in search of work, and the number of people in the country illegally will balloon again.
"Why is this not in here?" said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, which opposes illegal immigration on the grounds that undocumented workers take jobs from U.S. citizens. "We've always said you can never have another amnesty without fixing why these people are here. The DACA people are here because employers were allowed to hire the DACA parents for 10, 15, 20 years."
The Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill in 2013 in a bid to reconcile the warring sides in the debate — the frustrated conservatives tired of the backlogged immigration system and failure to rein in unauthorized labor, and the liberal advocates who countered that it was too late to punish undocumented immigrants and their parents for the U.S. government's failure to fix a broken system.
The legislation would have legalized the bulk of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants but required them to wait up to 13 years to apply for citizenship — which would have been the longest wait in U.S. history since the 14 years specified by the Naturalization Act of 1798. (The wait today is five years.)
The House refused to consider the 2013 bill.
Now Trump is promoting a 10- to 12-year path for dreamers, $25 billion for a wall on the southern border, an end to the visa lottery system, and changes in family-based immigration that would allow immigrants to sponsor only spouses and children — not parents, siblings or members of their extended families.
The White House plan also calls for tougher enforcement and more funding for immigration agents and courts that could speed deportations for millions.
For Cristina Jiménez, co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, the largest immigrant-youth-led organization in the country, the proposal is a nonstarter.
"The idea that he would want to get all of these things in his wish list is unacceptable," she said.
But conservatives have concerns as well. Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration, said lengthening the path to citizenship is "a bad move both in principle and politically," by creating a second-tier citizenship in which Republicans appear "stingy."
"It will become a rallying cry for the people who now advocate for amnesty and more immigration," Vaughn said. "It doesn't neutralize this as a political issue for Republicans."
For Hiroshi Motomura, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, the broader question concerns the kind of United States that Americans want.
For decades, the U.S. government welcomed newcomers through the visa lottery, family sponsorship and a tacit agreement that even those here illegally often could stay so long as they worked, raised families and avoided criminal activity.
Now, he said, dreamers have become a bargaining chip in an effort to redraw that compact — a redrawing that he said he strongly opposes.
"It's really trying to exact a price in a legislative negotiation, but it's losing sight of what's going to make the strongest America 20 or 30 years from now," Motomura said of the White House proposal. "That's really what the trade-off is . . . that's why it's shortsighted."