US President Donald Trump is offering a path to citizenship for "Dreamers" in return for changes that experts say will cut immigration overall. Photo: AFP/Win McNamee
A showdown over US immigration policy loomed Wednesday after President Donald Trump laid out a tough deal in his State of The Union address that offers citizenship to 1.8 million "Dreamers" in exchange for sharp overall cuts to immigration.
Less than two weeks after Democrats forced a three-day shutdown of the government over the issue, the Republican president said he would not give in to anything less than a harsh cutback on existing immigration and massive funding for a wall on the Mexican border.
In exchange, Trump is offering a 12-year pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million people who came to the US illegally as children, 700,000 of whom are set to lose their current protection from deportation on March 6.
Democrats are pushing for the fate of the Dreamers to be tackled as a priority, and are resisting Republican efforts to tie it into a broader bargain on immigration.
The stalemate led Democrats to block a one-month budget extension on January 19, forcing a partial shutdown of the federal government, and the same threat looms over the new deadline for a long-term budget, February 8.
In his annual speech before Congress late Tuesday, Trump again portrayed legal and illegal immigration as a threat to the country, highlighting murders by gang members from other countries and terror attacks by people who entered the United States legally.
"For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives," Trump said.
"My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans -- to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American Dream. Because Americans are Dreamers too."
- Democrats: Trump 'uncompromising' -
With the immigrant population a crucial part of their voter base, Democrats sought to frame Trump's speech as demeaning and uncompromising.
Representative Joe Kennedy, chosen by the party to answer Trump's speech, began with a paean to new foreign arrivals and their contributions to the country.
"We are here in Fall River, Massachusetts -- a proud American city, built by immigrants," he said.
Speaking in Spanish, he tried to assuage the mostly Latino Dreamers.
"To all the Dreamers watching tonight, let me be clear: You are a part of our story. We will fight for you. We will not walk away."
Speaking on NPR radio, early Wednesday Democratic Senator Chris Murphy accused Trump of using the Dreamers as "political pawns."
"The president doubled down on his rhetoric, demonizing immigrants and trying to make Americans afraid of people who are crossing our border to come here to seek a better life," he said.
"We didn't get any closer to a deal on immigration or on the federal budget. We got further away," he said.
- Dreamers vs. immigration cuts -
Democrats have pressed since last year for separate legislation to deal with the fate of 690,000 "Dreamer" immigrants who are registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, established by president Barack Obama in 2012 to protect their presence in the country.
Trump cancelled the program in September, but is now offering a 12 year path to citizenship that goes beyond DACA recipients, extending to all those who arrived in the country as youths and children and have grown up here.
As a counterpart, however, he wants $25 billion for a border wall, an end to the "green card lottery," and a sharp cutback to family-based, or "chain" migration.
Immigration groups say that will reduce overall immigration by as much as half, and Democrats say the chain migration cutback will hurt families.
Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer called Trump's proposal "draconian."
"His immigration proposal betrays family values and uses Dreamers as a bargaining chip to harm other families."
Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier said Wednesday that Trump's stance was a non-starter.
"I think we are nowhere," she said on CNN. Without a "clean" DACA fix, and a budget bill without his immigration demands, "I think we will be teetering on another shutdown, which is horrible."
"Nobody wants a shutdown," she said. "What we need to do is be responsible adults and realize we're not going to get everything we want, and carve a pathway forward."