WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said for the first time Wednesday he will call for a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, many of whom now face deportation as a consequence of his past action.
Trump told reporters he wanted a law that would give the mostly young immigrants legal status and ultimately a way to achieve full citizenship in 10 to 12 years. The change would be part of a package, however, including new limits on legal immigration and money for his proposed southern border wall. White House officials said they would send the proposal to Congress on Monday.
"Tell them not to be concerned," Trump said of the Dreamers. "Tell them not to worry. We will solve the problem."
While the president went further than before in expressing support for addressing the plight of the young immigrants, agreement with Congress and between the political parties is hardly assured given the intensity of feelings on the broader immigration issues. But his backing is essential for any legalization proposal to pass in the House.
Many Republicans, especially in the House, oppose any legalization proposals as "amnesty," while Democrats resist many of Trump's proposed restrictions on legal immigration programs and a southern border wall.
Trump's remarks, however, marked the first time he had committed himself to offer a specific, written proposal on the Dreamers. His frequently shifting positions on how to handle their status have been a main frustration for lawmakers and one of the reasons Congress has proved unable to resolve the issue.
Trump told reporters he wanted $25 billion for the wall and $5 billion for other border security measures. He said the border barrier would cover 800 miles and could include improved fencing, in addition to natural barriers. There are already approximately 700 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border.
In addition to money for the border barrier, Trump has insisted any bill must include more power for deportation agents, curbs on the ability of citizens and legal residents to sponsor relatives to resettle in the U.S., and an end to a visa lottery that brings in mostly Eastern European and African migrants.
Questions such as how much money for the wall is enough, how strict the limits on relatives should be and what new powers to provide could all become items for lawmakers to trade in an eventual compromise. In addition, a significant question is how many Dreamers to cover. Depending on how a bill is written, the number could run from approximately 700,000 who are currently protected from deportation to 2 million.
"I have no problem whatsoever for them getting green cards," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for restricting immigration.
"The question is how many get it? What is the scope of the amnesty?"
Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, who has spent decades lobbying Congress to reduce the number of immigrants coming to the U.S., said a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers would be "reasonable" if it was accompanied by limiting sponsorship of family members and eliminating the visa lottery.
Trump's remarks come days after a short-lived government shutdown last weekend, which occurred after Democrats, joined by a few Republicans, blocked a funding bill in an unsuccessful bid to force action protecting Dreamers. Now Trump and Congress are scrambling for compromise legislation, months after Trump in September ordered an end March 5 to the Obama-era program that protects them — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — and called on Congress to devise an alternative.
On Wednesday evening, an unusually large bipartisan group of 36 senators met to begin talks on an immigration deal. As part of the agreement to end the federal shutdown this week, the Senate agreed to try to resolve the DACA issue as part of a broader immigration compromise by Feb. 8, when government funding again expires.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the meeting, along with Trump's comments, were "encouraging signs." A Democratic leader, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, agreed, saying, "The president is headed in the right direction here."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also praised Trump's move, saying it "represents presidential leadership on immigration that will allow us to solve a difficult problem."
Durbin's comment was notable, given he is a key Democratic leader on the issue. It was his bipartisan immigration proposal with Graham that Trump rejected — a move that helped provoke the shutdown.
"The president wants to lead on this issue, and that's exactly what we're going to do," press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday, hours before Trump made remarks to reporters.
The White House tack represents a break from Trump's approach two weeks ago when, in a bipartisan meeting about solving the DACA impasse, he said he'd "sign whatever bill they send me." Since then, he has rejected two bipartisan proposals.