President Donald Trump says he wants a "bill of love" to resolve the predicament of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. The coming days will reveal whether he is willing to strike a deal.
In poll after poll, a large majority of Americans support a legislative solution for the immigrants often referred to as "DREAMers," many of whom have no memory of life outside the United States. The issue also enjoys a fair measure of bipartisan backing in Congress. But turning that goodwill into a measure that can be enacted is proving extremely difficult.
On Wednesday, the President reiterated his position that any fix must include funding for a wall on the border with Mexico, one of several Republican demands in the current negotiations that Democrats find impossible or problematic. "Without the wall, it all doesn't work," Mr. Trump said at a news conference with Norway's Prime Minister.
A new deadline is just ahead: By Jan. 19, lawmakers need to pass a measure to fund the U.S. government, a move that requires bipartisan support in the Senate. Democrats insist that a fix for "DREAMers" must be part of that package.
Mr. Trump set the current confrontation in motion back in September when he cancelled an Obama-era program that allowed 800,000 "DREAMers" to receive temporary work permits and avoid deportation. In the intervening months, more than 10,000 such immigrants have already seen their status expire. Unless Congress acts, the pace of expirations will skyrocket in early March, with approximately 1,000 people losing their protections every day.
Late Tuesday, a court ruling added a new element to an already unpredictable environment. A federal judge in California temporarily blocked Mr. Trump's move to halt renewals of the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The Trump administration will appeal the ruling, possibly directly to the Supreme Court. For now, there is no mechanism by which DACA recipients can reapply for the program.
Immigration advocates and Democrats are pushing for the passage of a version of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM), the legislation that gave the undocumented immigrants their "DREAMer" label and would provide them with a path toward citizenship.
Republicans are insisting that any such measure be paired with increases in border security, including a border wall, the end of a visa lottery program, and changes to the current system of allowing citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their relatives.
In an extraordinary televised negotiating session with lawmakers on Tuesday, Mr. Trump expressed enthusiasm for a potential deal without a firm grasp of the specifics. He embraced a bewildering array of positions on immigration, veering from apparent support for a broad overhaul of the system to advocating hardline demands that Democrats reject.
When Republican senators pressed him on what deal he would be willing to sign into law to protect DACA recipients, he at first sidestepped the question then later asserted that he would ratify whatever Congress agreed upon.
Immigration advocates said they were somewhat heartened by Mr. Trump's seeming flexibility and stated desire to make a deal. He indicated at the start of the meeting that his border wall need not stretch across the entire boundary between the United States and Mexico.
"The key takeaway is that he clearly wants to get something done," said Marshall Fitz, managing director for immigration at Emerson Collective, an organization that works on immigration and education issues. "If you built a wall of Legos on the border, he would put a Trump sign on the top and declare victory."
Mr. Trump shocked some observers by stating that legislators could reach a deal for DACA recipients and then immediately pivot to the broader issue of comprehensive immigration reform – one of the most contentious legislative topics in U.S. politics that has stymied prior administrations. Such legislation has sought to resolve the status of the roughly 11 million people in the United States illegally, and immigration experts said there was no chance lawmakers were willing to open that discussion at present.
Mr. Trump also declared that he would be willing to "take the heat" from enraged members of the Republican base, some of whom view any move to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants as an unacceptable amnesty granted to people who have broken the law (prominent members of Mr. Trump's own administration, including Attorney-General Jeff Sessions and White House adviser Stephen Miller, endorse this view).
But it remains unclear whether Mr. Trump is even committed to selling a solution for DACA recipients to his supporters. A former Republican staffer involved in immigration negotiations questioned how much criticism from his base Mr. Trump would be willing to withstand. The former staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, noted that the President is often a moving target where policy is concerned.
A small bipartisan group of lawmakers is continuing to meet in an attempt to hash out a deal before next Friday, the deadline for preventing a government shutdown. A solution for DACA recipients is one of several items Democrats want to resolve in the spending package; the others include the removal of certain domestic spending caps and the renewal of funding for a children's health-insurance program.
As of now, there seems to be little appetite for forcing a shutdown. Republicans with the help of a handful of Democrats could also approve a short-term spending measure and postpone the tough questions to next month.
For DACA recipients, such a delay would mark an extension of the uncertainty that has clouded their futures since last year. "The urgency of getting the DREAM Act passed is extreme at this point," said Gregory Chen, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "We have more momentum building now than we have had in many months."