WASHINGTON: The citizenship hopes of 1.8 million immigrants brought to the United States as children hung in the balance on Monday (Feb 12) as Congress launched debate on the hot-button issue, with President Donald Trump eager to "make a deal" on new legislation.
In offering a path to citizenship for the so-called Dreamers, President Donald Trump has exceeded the demands of opposition Democrats - but only in exchange for tough cutbacks on overall immigration and funding for a massive wall on the Mexican border.
His proposal was front and centre as senators from both sides of the aisle began an unpredictable process that could yield a long-sought breakthrough on immigration, or end in failure -- with hundreds of thousands of immigrants at risk of losing their legal protections early next month.
"I hope to be able to make a deal," Trump said, adding the Republican Party would "love" to reach an agreement. "If the Democrats want to make a deal, it's really up to them."
'THREADING A NEEDLE'
A group of conservative senators was to introduce a bill on Monday that closely follows the proposals Trump made in January.
The Secure and Succeed Act offers a 10-12 year path to citizenship for the 1.8 million Dreamers.
But it will also end the popular "Green Card lottery," a 28-year-old programme to diversify immigrant arrivals, and sharply limit family-based immigration.
In addition, it will allocate US$25 billion for tougher immigration enforcement including the construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border that Trump promised during his 2016 election campaign.
"This is the only bill that has a chance of becoming law, and that's because it's the only bill that will truly solve the underlying problem," said Senator Tom Cotton, a lead sponsor of the legislation.
The Senate's focus on immigration begins on the day the White House unveiled Trump's budget framework for 2019, which asks for increases in border security funding, including for additional agents, detention centers and high-tech equipment such as drones.
"Until the porous borders are closed to the criminals, terrorists, and gang members that exploit it, America remains at risk," the White House said in the document.
Several Democrats have said Trump's plan is dead on arrival because it would so dramatically curb legal immigration.
But amid intense negotiations, top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer suggested both parties were committed to a solution.
"Democrats and Republicans are working hard to find a bill to protect the Dreamers and provide border security that will garnish 60 votes," he said, referring to the threshold for advancing legislation in the 100-member chamber.
"No easy task," he added. "It's like threading a needle."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to oversee an open-ended process by which both sides will be allowed to introduce amendments on immigration.
'COMMON SENSE' COALITION
With the fate of the Dreamers in limbo, a bipartisan group of about 25 senators, which has become known as the "Common Sense Coalition" is trying to forge a compromise package.
The clock is ticking: nearly 700,000 Dreamers who are registered under DACA could begin losing protections from expulsion early next month.
Trump scrapped the scheme in September and gave Congress six months to craft a permanent fix.
The programme's Mar 5 expiration date is not set in stone, however; a San Francisco judge's injunction has at least temporarily blocked removal of DACA protections ordered by Trump late last year.
Cotton's bill could meet stiff resistance.
Democrats and some Republicans have opposed Trump's hardline stance, especially the restriction of family-based immigration to spouses and children, and massive funding for the border wall.
Trump's Democratic opponents had originally pushed only for a permanent solution for the 690,000 DACA registrants, in separate legislation.
By expanding the promise of citizenship to all 1.8 million DACA-eligible young immigrants - and tying it to immigration cutbacks - Trump has put the Democrats in a corner.
The president has blamed domestic terror attacks and violent crime on beneficiaries of the visa lottery and family-based "chain migration."
Should an immigration compromise pass the Senate, its fate in the House would remain unclear, in part because some conservatives oppose pathways to citizenship for undocumented migrants.