WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Tuesday appeared to endorse a sweeping immigration deal that would eventually grant millions of immigrants in the country illegally a pathway to citizenship, saying he would be willing to "take the heat" politically for an approach that many of his hard-line supporters have long viewed as unacceptable.
The president made the remarks during an extended meeting with congressional Republicans and Democrats who are weighing a shorter-term agreement that would extend legal status for immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. Trump has said such a deal must be accompanied by new money for a border wall and measures to limit immigrants from bringing family members into the country in the future, conditions he repeated during the meeting Tuesday.
But in backing a broader immigration measure, Trump was giving a rare public glimpse of an impulse he has expressed privately to advisers and lawmakers — the desire to preside over a more far-reaching solution to the status of the 11 million immigrants already living and working illegally in the United States. Such action has the potential to alienate the hard-line immigration activists who powered his political rise and helped him win the presidency, many of whom have described it as amnesty for lawbreakers.
"If you want to take it that further step, I'll take the heat," Trump told Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who floated the idea during the meeting in the White House Cabinet Room on Tuesday. "You are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform."
The White House meeting was extraordinary, an extended negotiating session that was televised by news channels. Trump repeatedly went back to his call for a broad and comprehensive immigration bill, even as Democratic and Republican lawmakers cautioned him of the failures of the past. Some Republicans pointedly said Trump was being too ambitious. Even Democrats worried that more immediate immigration matters might fail to pass with the broader package now on the table.
Trump said he supported a two-phase approach that would first codify the protections created under DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that he has moved to end by March, and then address other immigrants in the country illegally. Democrats have insisted that the program, which grants reprieves from deportation and work permits to immigrants brought to the United States without authorization as children, be part of any longer-term agreement to fund the government beyond Jan. 19, when current funding expires.
But the president said action on the more ambitious immigration measure would be possible "the next afternoon." Previous attempts to enact such a broad bipartisan immigration compromise, during the Obama and George W. Bush presidencies, proved politically impossible. Comprehensive immigration bills passed the Senate in 2006 and in 2013 only to be stymied in the House.
"You created an opportunity here, Mr. President," Graham said to Trump, "and you need to close the deal."
Seated with members of both parties during a meeting at the White House to discuss a narrower immigration agreement, the president said there was room for a compromise on DACA.
"We have something in common," Trump said of Democrats. "We'd like to see this get done."
But the president said he would insist on strict new immigration limits as part of any such measure, calling it a "bill of love." Laying out conditions that many Democrats view as nonstarters, Trump said the legislation must fortify the nation's borders; end "chain migration," a term used by immigration critics to refer to immigrants' ability to bring members of their extended family to the United States after gaining their own legal status; and cancel the diversity visa lottery program.
"I really do believe Democrat and Republican, the people sitting in this room, really want to get something done," Trump said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a leading proponent of codifying the DACA protections, said members of his party would support some border security measures, but noted that action to shield recipients from deportation was urgent, given that their grants of legal status will begin expiring in early March.
"Lives are hanging in the balance," Durbin said. "We've got the time to do it."