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 securing $25 billion for a wall on the southwest border with Mexico and $5 billion for additional border 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 a president who ran a campaign with a hard line on immigration and last week rejected a bipartisan Senate proposal that included citizenship.
White House aides said the president would release a complete "framework" on Monday. The aides said that plan probably would grant immediate provisional legal status to those immigrants covered by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that he terminated in the fall. That group would then be eligible to pursue full citizenship over 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 to have the incentive, after a period of years, of being able to become a citizen."
Lawmakers face a Feb. 8 deadline for a must-pass spending bill to keep the government open, but Democrats and some Republicans have said they will not support a long-term deal that does not address the future of the DACA program. The impasse over immigration led to a brief, partial government shutdown this week before lawmakers agreed Monday to a three-week funding extension.
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 hard-liners. A senior White House official said the framework would give lawmakers a clearer set of guidelines to help break the impasse.
"This president is committed to fixing this damn problem," a senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, told reporters at a background briefing. "What we were hearing constantly from [Capitol] Hill is ... 'Look, I’m not going to put my neck out and support something unless I know the president will sign it.'"
Yet Trump has reneged on previous statements about the dreamers, who have lived in the country illegally since they were children. Their moniker comes from the DREAM Act, bipartisan legislation first proposed in 2001 that would provide citizenship to the group under certain conditions. It has never passed Congress.
During his campaign, Trump promised to end DACA, which offered two-year work permits to undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, 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 said Trump's proposal for citizenship would be limited to the 690,000 who were enrolled in DACA when he 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 under the latest version of the DREAM Act.
Many of those who were eligible for DACA never applied, which immigrant rights advocates attributed to fears of registering with the government and costs associated with applying. White House officials said it would be left to Congress to negotiate over expanding protections beyond the DACA recipients. In all, there are an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country unlawfully.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who drafted the bipartisan immigration plan along with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) that Trump rejected last week, 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 judiciary subcommittee on immigration policy.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who co-chaired meetings before and during the three-day government shutdown 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 plan “represents a compromise that members of both parties can support. We encourage the Senate to bring it to the floor.”
Late last year, the administration 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 rejected a last-minute offer from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who reportedly offered $25 billion for border security and the wall.
On Tuesday, Schumer confirmed that he had pulled his proposal on Sunday during the shutdown. "We're going to have to start on a new basis, and the wall offer's off the table," he told reporters.
The announcement came as Schumer is facing backlash from some Democrats and immigrant rights groups for how he has handled negotiations with Trump.
If the lawmakers 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.