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Donald Trump Backs Citizenship Pathway for Dreamers

25 Jan

By Siobhan Hughes, Kristina Peterson and Louise Radnofsky, The Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump for the first time said publicly that he supported a pathway to citizenship for young, undocumented immigrants brought to the country by their parents, moving a step closer to bipartisan group seeking a way around an immigration-policy impasse but taking a position at odds with some conservatives.

“We’re going to morph into it—it’s going to happen,” Mr. Trump told reporters at the White House. “It’s a nice thing to have the incentive after a period of years, being able to become a citizen.”

Mr. Trump cited a time frame of 10 to 12 years for the young immigrants, dubbed Dreamers, to become citizens. Mr. Trump last September ended an Obama -era policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that shielded Dreamers from deportation. He gave Congress until March 5 to write the policy into law.

“Tell them not to worry,” Mr. Trump said about whether the young immigrants should be concerned that they will be deported if Congress misses a March 5 deadline.

He also indicated he could push back the deadline if Congress hasn’t reached a deal. “I might do that,” Mr. Trump said. “I’m not guaranteeing it.”

The comments marked the latest in a series of shifting statements by Mr. Trump on immigration policy, and they prompted immediate reaction on Capitol Hill. Democrats and Republicans who had worked on a plan to provide a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers reacted with enthusiasm, but conservatives were infuriated.

“Even legalizing the DACA recipients is amnesty because they’re granting them a pardon for their immigration-law violations,” said Rep. Steve King (R., Iowa.) “To couple it with the reward of citizenship for their crimes—it’s problematic,” said Mr. King.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who was part of a bipartisan group that proposed creating a pathway to citizenship after 10-12 years, was encouraged. “This statement represents presidential leadership on immigration,” Mr. Graham said on Twitter. “I truly appreciate President Trump making it clear that he supports a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), also part of the bipartisan group, tweeted: “the President is headed in the right direction here.”

Mr. Trump’s expressed support for granting citizenship to Dreamers marks a notable public shift, though it tracks with what senators say he has at times said privately. Last February, in a White House meeting with some senators, Mr. Trump said he was open to a comprehensive immigration overhaul passed by the Senate in 2013, which included a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally, according to senators in the room. But the White House disputed that account.

Mr. Trump met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) last week, but the meeting yielded no agreement. Republicans say that at that meeting, Mr. Schumer offered to support $25 billion for a border wall, a number that Mr. Schumer’s office has neither confirmed nor disputed. On Tuesday, Mr. Schumer said that he had rescinded his offer on the wall funding, in the wake of the shutdown.

Mr. Trump said Wednesday he wanted that funding to be part of a deal.

“We’re putting down $25 billion for the wall,” Mr. Trump said on Wednesday. “If you don’t have a wall, you don’t have DACA,” Mr. Trump added.

Mr. Trump’s remarks jolted the immigration debate on the same day that senators restarted immigration negotiations, regrouping following the government’s three-day shutdown. The White House said Wednesday it will release a framework for a deal next week. Negotiators must tackle the complicated and contentious question of what enforcement measures and changes to the legal immigration system will be included with the Dreamer protections.

Republican and Democratic senators leaving a late Wednesday meeting said that they didn’t know any details about the White House plan, and weren’t sure whether it would help or hinder their efforts.

“That could go either way,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) about the consequences of the release of a White House proposal.

Multiple groups of lawmakers met on Capitol Hill in an effort to resume discussions over how to handle the Dreamers. But lawmakers were no closer to reaching a deal than they were before the shutdown that began Saturday and ended Monday.

Uncertainty over the president’s position had hindered earlier congressional negotiations aimed at striking a bipartisan deal. House GOP leaders have said Mr. Trump’s endorsement will be crucial to enabling them to pass immigration legislation in that chamber, where many conservatives are likely to otherwise balk at any bill enshrining legal protections for the young immigrants.

Both parties are under increasing pressure to strike a deal. Liberals and immigration activists were furious this week at Democratic leaders because, they said, the lawmakers agreed to reopen the government without securing protections for the young immigrants.

But as the March 5 deadline approaches, many Republicans are likely to be more inclined to reach a deal to avoid being held responsible by voters for the nearly 700,000 young immigrants losing deportation protections, according to lawmakers from both parties.

Immigration legislation requires Democratic support because it needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, where Republicans hold 51 seats. Democratic support may also be needed in the House.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday said Mr. Trump would only accept an immigration proposal that ends the diversity visa lottery, which admits immigrants from underrepresented countries, and includes border-security funding, in exchange for a “permanent solution” on the future of the young immigrants.

Ms. Sanders said the president was committed to ending “extended family chain migration.” Mr. Trump has previously proposed changing the law so that citizens can sponsor only their spouses and minor children, eliminating the ability to bring adult children, parents or siblings.

The White House also has made late demands for tougher enforcement policies that could impact the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already in the U.S., as well as many people who arrive at ports of entry and turn themselves in to border agents.

They include limiting legal immigration into the U.S., making it easier to deport people and ending special rights that U.S. law now gives to certain children arriving alone.

A group of more than 30 senators met to develop their own framework for reaching a deal by Feb. 8. As part of an agreement this week to reopen the government, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said he intended to bring immigration legislation to the floor on Feb. 8, if the issue remains unresolved then.

Mr. Graham and Susan Collins of Maine, both Republicans, were organizing the bipartisan group, which is expected to draw in many senators less versed in immigration policy than those who have been involved in negotiations up until now.

“The idea that people new to the issue are going to suddenly find the magic formula that has been elusive to people who’ve been at it for 10 years sounds a little bit like wishful thinking,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant-advocacy group.

Senators said they weren’t taking any one bill as their starting point. Instead, they said, they were looking to see what ideas can gain wide traction. Passing a bill with strong support in the Senate would build pressure on the House to follow suit, the senators said. In 2013, a sweeping immigration overhaul cleared the Senate but fizzled in the House in the face of conservative opposition.

“The more we talk to each other and the more we try to bring other people and see what their concerns are, the greater the likelihood that…we can actually get something out of it that will have 60 votes,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), who is a member of the bipartisan group.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, seen as a key GOP figure in the immigration debate, said if Democrats want to pass permanent protections for the young immigrants, they will have to be willing to pair that with 10-year funding for border security. Democrats had previously indicated they would be willing to support the White House’s initial $1.6 billion request for border security.

“For a temporary solution for the DACA recipients, you’re going to get a temporary solution on the border security and enforcement front,” Mr. Cornyn said Wednesday.

“If you want a permanent solution for the DACA recipients, you’re going to need a permanent solution [for the border], which means a plan and funding,” closer to $25 billion, he said.