WASHINGTON — A nearly two-decade stalemate over the legal status of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants moved closer than ever to resolution Thursday as a president eager for tangible victories proved willing to get one by abandoning a position dear to many of his supporters.
A tentative framework, worked out over dinner Wednesday between GOP President Donald Trump and the top two Democrats in Congress, could give legal status to nearly 800,000 “Dreamers” — people brought to this country illegally as children by their parents.
The move came slightly more than a week after Trump announced he would end an Obama administration program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which provided Dreamers a shield against deportation and permission to work legally in the United States.
The agreement would enshrine the DACA protections in law in return for increased spending on border security.
Trump’s decision to end DACA had been a major victory for immigration restrictionists. But Trump, who has repeatedly shown a personal soft spot for the Dreamers, never seemed truly in sync with a willingness to see the young immigrants forced out, despite his own call for their deportation during the campaign.
The president’s decision to negotiate with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York infuriated many of his supporters.
Trump, however, seemed undeterred.
“People want to see that happen,” he told reporters Thursday morning, referring to the negotiations as he prepared to head to Florida to look at hurricane recovery.
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“You have 800,000 young people, brought here, no fault of their own. So we’re working on a plan, we’ll see how it works out. We’re going to get massive border security as part of that. And I think something can happen, we’ll see what happens, but something will happen.”
Republican members of Congress attributed his sudden outreach to the Democrats to unhappiness over his failure to achieve big legislative goals in his first eight months in office.
“He’s very frustrated in how things are not getting done, and he’s talking with the Democrats. What’s he supposed to do?” asked Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., one of Trump’s earliest supporters and longtime foe of illegal immigration.
Legislation to resolve the issue, known as the Dream Act and championed by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., has been under debate since the George W. Bush administration.
Longtime advocates cautioned that the treacherous politics of immigration could still upset a tentative deal.
At least for now, however, Trump’s willingness to back a legalization measure appeared to have broken the logjam in Congress, with even longtime supporters of immigration restriction saying they now viewed the young immigrants as a special case justifying a legislative solution.
White House officials, siding with Pelosi, said they want to see legislation pass before Congress takes a scheduled recess in early October, perhaps forestalling the ability of restrictionists to rally opposition to a deal.
The vehemence of that opposition is evident.
“Amnesty Don ... Trump Caves on DACA,” screamed a headline on Breitbart News, the conservative website run by Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.
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Sean Hannity, the Fox News commentator and one of Trump’s most loyal supporters, likened the president’s willingness to give legal status, and perhaps citizenship, to the Dreamers to President George H.W. Bush’s breaking of his “no new taxes” pledge.
But Trump, who last year boasted his supporters would stick with him even if he shot a person on Fifth Avenue, may not face such a high price. Polling has repeatedly shown that large majorities of Americans, including a majority of Trump voters, have empathy for the Dreamers.
Throughout the day Thursday, Trump sought to defend himself against charges he was breaking a campaign pledge.
“We’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here,” he said in Florida. “We’re talking about taking care of people, people who were brought here, people who’ve done a good job.”
Trump also talked about the importance of his long-sought wall along the border with Mexico, but did not say money for it would need to be in a DACA deal.
“Very important is the wall. We have to be sure the wall isn’t obstructed,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be here (in the DACA deal), but they can’t obstruct the wall if it’s in a budget or anything else.”
Trump said he had briefed House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on his discussions.
McConnell’s office released a statement offering lukewarm support.
But Ryan insisted talks were just beginning. “There’s no agreement,” he said. “These were discussions.”