WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump is ready to sign on to a plan that would open a path to citizenship for as many as 1.8 million "Dreamers," young immigrants brought illegally to the country as children, senior White House officials said on Thursday.
The White House presented the offer as a major concession aimed at attracting enough votes from Democrats. But it includes a number of elements such as tightening border security and deterring new immigrants to appeal to Republican hardliners.
"This is kind of a bottom line for the president," a senior official told reporters, saying it would be up to lawmakers to determine some of the details. "If it's realistic, then he'll sign it. If it isn't realistic, then he won't sign it."
Trump's plan, which the White House hopes will be first voted on in the Senate in early February, would require Congress to set up a $25 billion "trust fund" to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico, and invest in better protections at the northern border with Canada.
Trump, whose hardline immigration stance was a key part of his 2016 presidential campaign, said in September he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program for Dreamers that was created by Democratic predecessor Barack Obama unless Congress came up with a new law.
The DACA protections apply to about 700,000 people, but White House officials estimated there were at least that many illegal immigrants who qualified for the program but did not sign up for it.
Officials said the 1.8 million people could apply to become citizens in 10 to 12 years providing they had jobs and did not commit crimes.
The fight over DACA, which is set to expire in March, was part of the standoff between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate that resulted in a three-day government shutdown that ended on Monday.
They agreed to extend funding until Feb. 8, leaving a small window to come to a deal on immigration. Trump's plan will help those talks, said Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"I am hopeful that as discussions continue in the Senate on the subject of immigration, members on both sides of the aisle will look to this framework for guidance as they work towards an agreement," McConnell said.
Republican Senator Thom Tillis, one of the lawmakers working across the aisle on a possible compromise, praised Trump’s “realistic” plan.
“The framework proposes policies supported by both parties and the American people,” Tillis said in a statement.
But negotiations are expected to be difficult.
After Trump briefly outlined some of the measures to reporters on Wednesday during an impromptu question-and-answer session, his comments sparked concern from conservatives in Congress.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz said it would be a "serious mistake" to grant a path to citizenship for any immigrants in the United States illegally.
"We see Republicans falling all over themselves to gallop to the left of Obama in a way that is contrary to the promises made to the voters who elected us," said Cruz, an immigration hardliner.
Conservative group Heritage Action called the proposal "amnesty" and said it should be a "non-starter."
Democrats were also skeptical. "The White House unfortunately has proven unreliable and wildly unpredictable," Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. "Within the course of hours, they say different things."
To become law, the measures would also need to pass the House of Representatives. A second senior official declined to speculate on whether the plan would pass the Republican-controlled chamber.
"I think the House will have an independent vehicle," the second official said. "We're not trying to force something on the House."
NO NARROW DEAL
White House officials made clear that a deal could not just address DACA and the border wall, but must include measures to curb legal immigration and deter new illegal immigrants.
The package would require Congress to limit family sponsorship of immigrants to spouses and minor children, ending sponsorship for parents, siblings, and other extended family members.
It would also end a visa lottery system for certain countries, the officials said.
Those measures would cut immigration by 50 percent, said Frank Sharry, head of pro-immigration group America's Voice.
"We are going to fight this tooth and nail," Sharry said.
Congress would have to allocate additional money to border guards and immigration judges, a figure that Trump pegged at $5 billion on Wednesday, but which White House officials said was up for further discussion.
The White House also wants Congress to change rules to allow for the rapid deportation of illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico and Canada who arrive at the U.S. border, the officials said. (Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Blake Brittain; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney)