CAPITOL HILL - A bipartisan group of six senators announced Thursday they had reached an agreement "in principle" on an immigration deal that would address the fate of more than 800,000 DACA recipients and other key immigration reform issues outlined by President Donald Trump.
The group said in a statement: We have been working for four months and have reached an agreement in principle that addresses border security, the diversity visa lottery, chain migration/family reunification and the Dream Act the areas outlined by the President."
"We are now working to build support for that deal in Congress," one of the six, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), said in a statement.
Getting to a deal may not be easy. With deep party divisions over immigration reform and only four working days left until funding runs out, the twists and turns on the path to passing that bill are anything but simple.
Asked earlier Thursday about preliminary reports that the senators were nearing an agreement, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there has not been a deal reached yet, but the president is hopeful.
"The president has been clear on what his priorities are in that process and we're going to continue working with members of the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, to make sure that we try to get that deal done," she said.
In a meeting with lawmakers Tuesday, Trump issued a four-item wish list: DACA, a border wall, replacing family-based immigration with a merit-based one, and eliminating the diversity visa.
Since last September when Trump ended DACA, congressional Republicans have maintained that the program should be part of a broader immigration bill, opening the door to a wide range of issues.
Border security maybe, but no wall
Trump has specified DACA legislation has to include measures to "secure the border." The unresolved question here is whether this includes a continuous physical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that was one of the president's centerpiece campaign promises or a package of border security measures.
Congressional Democrats facing re-election in the 2018 mid-terms will never agree to fund a physical border wall. They hold the cards in this debate; without their votes for a budget deal, the U.S. government will shut down after January 19.
"The president agreed we ought to do it in two phases because we have an emergency," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said Wednesday of the March 5 deadline for DACA expiration. "We need to make sure they're protected and included and welcomed now."
Republican Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both from Florida, have also promised to vote against any spending bill that does not include a DACA fix. Curbelo sponsored the Recognizing America's Children Act, one of several bills in Congress that if passed would provide a permanent legislative solution for DREAMers.
Democrats' calculations on the budget deal could change if the border enforcement piece included repair of existing sections of border fencing and more technology for surveillance. Border Congressman Will Hurd's (R-TX) proposal for a SMART "wall" using drone and biometric technology to police the border could provide a blueprint for that approach.
"We're willing to give a little when it comes to border security but we're not willing to give away the whole hog," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ).
Democrats from the more progressive wing of their party will be reluctant to give too much on border enforcement in return for a DACA fix.
For Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), a longtime supporter of DREAMers, President Trump's desire to undo family-based immigration is ironic.
"He couldn't even go to the White House without bringing his daughter and his son-in-law with him well, guess what that's the way businesses work and that's how families thrive in America," Gutierrez told reporters Tuesday night. He added family-based migration is "fundamental to who we are."
Opponents say the current system of family migration creates a security risk by allowing an easy pathway into residency in the United States. Supporters say the practice allowing an immigrant into the U.S. to sponsor green cards for spouses, children and siblings reunites families.
A new bill introduced in the U.S. House by Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) and Michael McCaul (R-TX), joined by conservative Freedom Caucus member Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Arizona Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-AZ) addresses all of these issues and eliminates the diversity visa, another item on Trump's wish list.
This bill would "honor the commitment the president made to couple it [DACA fix] with securing our borders and ending chain migration," Goodlatte said Wednesday.
Passing the bill, however, will take time and with neither side eager to appear responsible for shutting down the U.S. government, the expectation from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is that each of these issues will have to be resolved step by step.
"It's still my view that I will call up a DACA-related immigration bill that I know the president will sign," he said Monday, "and that it will not be a part of any overall spending agreement."