As the Senate prepares to begin a free-wheeling debate over immigration next week, White House officials have begun floating a possible compromise idea – a pledge to maintain legal immigration at current levels, about 1.1 million people a year, for more than a decade.
President Donald Trump has proposed a series of measures, including restrictions on family unification, which he calls "chain migration," and an end to the visa lottery, that critics say ultimately could cut legal immigration to America by 40 percent or more.
But a White House official said Saturday that the Trump administration is working with allies in the Senate on a proposal that would create a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million people who were brought to the country illegally as children, and that would clear the backlog of nearly 4 million sponsored relatives who currently are waiting for green cards.
The combined effort, officials said, would effectively make up for the cuts in other immigration categories for about 13 years, the official said. After that, if Congress takes no additional action to add or expand visa categories, the total number of people allowed to resettle in the U.S. each year likely would decline by hundreds of thousands.
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The outline began emerging early this week when John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, and Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security, met with a half a dozen or so Latino Republicans at the White House and said the administration was prepared to ensure that overall immigration levels would remain steady.
The shift shows the White House is feeling out the contours of a possible compromise as lawmakers prepare for marathon immigration debates on the Senate floor next week over how to protect from deportation – and possibly provide legal status for – the estimated 1.8 million people brought to the country illegally as children.
About 800,000 of them were given protection from deportation by the Obama administration under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. But the Trump administration abruptly ended the program in September and set a six-month cut-off date for renewal applications.
A federal judge has suspended that March 5 deadline, but the White House has used the so-called Dreamers as a bargaining chip in Congress for its own immigration priorities, including cuts to legal immigration.
Democratic demands to protect the Dreamers led to a three-day government shutdown during the congressional budget showdown last month, and an epic eight-hour speech on the House floor this week by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Both efforts failed to get DACA in the spending packages.
On Saturday, Trump accused the Democrats of trying to politicize the Dreamers' plight ahead of the midterm election in November.
"Republicans want to fix DACA far more than the Democrats do," he tweeted. Democrats "only want to use it as a campaign issue."
Democratic leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, have signaled privately to the White House they are willing to negotiate Trump's demand for $25 billion as part of a broader immigration package that would include help for the Dreamers.
The money would go into a "trust fund" for walls or fences on the southern border, as well as other border security purposes.
The hardest sell for Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates has been Trump's insistence on limiting the types of family members that U.S. citizens and permanent residents can help resettle in the U.S., and what happens to those who already have applied.
Deriding the program as "chain migration," Trump says only sponsors' spouses and non-adult children should be admitted. People now can sponsor parents and, in some cases, siblings and adult children.
However, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, an evangelical Christian pastor based in Sacramento, Calif., who is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said he's been assured repeatedly by the White House that overall legal immigration levels would not be cut under Trump's plan.
"That number is not being played with at all whatsoever," said Rodriguez, one of the Latino conservatives who attended the hour-long meeting Tuesday with Kelly and Nielsen.
Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, also attended the meeting in the Roosevelt Room. He said the White House appeared to be making a "serious effort" to find common ground on immigration.
"Democrats are fabricating reasons not to address the framework or to talk to Republicans," Aguilar said. "Both sides are going to have to accept things they don't like."
Aguilar said he left the meeting believing the White House would support ways to speed up approvals of the nearly 4 million parents, siblings and other relatives who have applied for permanent residency and are in long backlogs.
Another Latino in the meeting, Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative, a free-market group aimed at Latinos and bankrolled by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, said he was reassured by the meeting and felt the White House was open to negotiating.
"We don't want to see arbitrary cuts to legal immigration," Garza said.
Critics already are lining up. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates restricting immigration, said he would oppose a White House deal to keep legal immigration at current levels for more than a decade, calling it "a reversal" of Trump's previous proposals.
"This argument that our economy and our success requires mass immigration is absurd," Krikorian said.
In Congress, bipartisan groups are seeking to develop legislation as the Senate prepares for a rare open debate on immigration next week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to take a House bill, strip its contents, and in a step not seen in modern times, open the floor for amendments to fill the bill. The White House is working with senators to craft an amendment that addresses all Trump's requirements.
"It will be an opportunity for 1,000 flowers to bloom," McConnell told reporters this week, oddly echoing the phrase Chinese leader Mao Zedong used in 1956 to encourage criticism of the Communist Party before he violently purged the critics who stepped forward.
The debate will be "fair to everyone," McConnell said. "And in the Senate, on those rare occasions when we have these open debates, whoever gets to 60 wins."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 ranking Democrat in the Senate, said McConnell has guaranteed "a fair and open process for senators to finally act to protect Dreamers."
Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are coauthors of the Dream Act, a bipartisan bill that would create a path to legal status for Dreamers. Democrats essentially want Trump to accept that legislation, which could be introduced for an up or down vote next week.
To get debate started, McConnell may allow the introduction of a narrow amendment that extends the DACA program by three years, and see how many votes that can get.
The future also is uncertain for the diversity visa lottery, which admits about 50,000 immigrants a year, mostly from Eastern Europe and Africa, and is geared toward countries that don't send many immigrants to the U.S. Trump has insisted the lottery be eliminated.
Democrats in the past were open to changing that system. But after Trump reportedly complained of immigrants coming from "shithole countries" in Africa and elsewhere, several Democratic lawmakers, including the Congressional Black Caucus, balked at ending the lottery completely.
Lawmakers are looking at other ways to keep legal immigration steady, including increasing skills-based immigration categories.
One possibility would be to resurrect a proposal made by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, during an immigration reform push in 2013 that ultimately failed. It would have more than tripled the number of work visas for foreign tech workers to about 180,000 per year.
Even if the Senate pieces together an immigration bill, any proposal to create legal status for immigrants in the country illegally will meet resistance in the GOP-led House. In 2013, the last time a major bipartisan immigration bill passed the Senate, it never even got to a vote in the House.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., promised Thursday to allow an immigration bill come to a vote this time.
"To anyone who doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not," Ryan said. "We will bring a solution to the floor, one that the president will sign."
(Lisa Mascaro of the Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)