WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - President Donald Trump will support a path to citizenship for as many as 1.8 million undocumented immigrants brought into the US as children, doubling the number of people covered by current protections from deportation, White House officials said on Thursday (Jan 25).
The White House offered to more than double the number of people protected from deportation, describing it as a major concession aimed at attracting enough votes for an immigration deal from Democrats. But the plan comes with significant strings attached to appeal to Republicans.
As part of any deal, Trump also wants Congress to provide a US$25 billion (S$32.7 billion) trust fund to pay for a southern border wall and enhanced security at ports of entry as well as improvements along the US-Canada border.
He also will seek additional funds for immigration enforcement personnel and immigration judges.
The requests, detailed in what the White House is calling a "legislative framework" that is being delivered to Congress, also include limiting family-based immigration to nuclear families - spouses and children only - and ending the visa lottery system put into place more than two decades ago. Three White House officials previewed the framework on the condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement.
The package was immediately panned by pro-immigration groups, which said the plan was a bad trade-off.
It was also slammed by some conservative groups, which decried the expansion of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. The head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Democratic Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the Trump plan used Dreamers as "bargaining chips for sweeping anti-immigrant policies."
Early reaction from Republicans in the Senate - where the plan may receive a vote in early February - was positive. Conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton called the plan "generous and humane, while also being responsible". Republicans narrowly control the chamber by 51-49 and need Democratic votes to pass legislation.
The White House is asking the Senate to rely on its outline as lawmakers draft a bill to protect recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which Trump announced last year would end in early March. The administration is asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell bring the bill to the floor the week of Feb 6, just before current government funding runs out at the end of the day Feb 8.
McConnell and other lawmakers have voiced concerns that they didn't know what kind of immigration bill Trump would sign and were reluctant to publicly signal their support for something that he wouldn't back. The framework is in effect a bottom line for Trump, one official said when asked if it was negotiable.
DACA is a program that was created by Democratic predecessor Barack Obama to protect immigrants who were brought illegally to the country as children, also known as Dreamers.
The president's willingness to sign a bill that includes a pathway to citizenship is a shift from his campaign promise to end all "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.
In a Jan 9 meeting with lawmakers, the president said he wanted to deal with the issue with "love."
The White House, eager to tighten immigration policy, is casting the proposal as a major concession intended to spur DACA recipients' backers to agree to policy changes that they otherwise may not favour.
A White House official said on Thursday that the administration anticipates the House will probably pass its own immigration bill that will have to merged with what the Senate approves.
The 1.8 million people who would be eligible for a 10-to-12-year pathway to citizenship include the 690,000 people enrolled in the DACA programme, plus a similar number who were eligible for the program but didn't apply, and a small number who would become eligible because of adjustments to the calendar used to determine qualifications, an official said.
The programme would set requirements for education, work and good moral character, as defined in the law for seeking US citizenship. Legal status could be revoked in the event of criminal conduct, public safety or national security concerns, fraud, or if the person becomes financially dependent on the government.
DACA RECIPIENTS' PARENTS
The limits on immigration preferences for family members would mean that people could no longer bring parents or other relatives.
Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin said earlier this week that the status of DACA recipients' parents must be addressed if family-based immigration such as sponsorship of parents is eliminated.
Trump's proposal is sure to hit resistance from immigration hardliners among Republicans in Congress. Senator Ted Cruz earlier Thursday blasted the idea of giving young undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, and suggested Trump was betraying his voters.
Democrats could also resist it.
Stephen Legomsky, who was chief counsel at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration, called the plan a "horrendous tradeoff" and predicted Democrats would reject it.
"It offers a one-time citizenship path to innocent Dreamers and expects in return a massive permanent cut to family immigration, the permanent elimination of the entire diversity program, and a huge expenditure for a border wall," said Legomsky, now at Washington University Law School in St. Louis.
A group of immigrant youth called United We Dream said the deal was "pitting us against our own parents, Black immigrants and our communities."
Groups that oppose allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States also voiced criticism, and urged Congress to take its time. "While it includes a number of tough immigration enforcement provisions, it includes an amnesty that is more than twice the size of the DACA population," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favours restrictions.
In addition to the US$25 billion for border security, the White House is seeking efforts to address the flow of the drug fentanyl, something that Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota requested on Thursday.
The end of the visa lottery programme would allow the government to reallocate resources toward processing the backlog of family-related and high-skilled visa requests, one official said.