Washington (AFP) - US President Donald Trump said Wednesday he was prepared to back a deal that would provide a pathway to citizenship to America's so-called "Dreamer" immigrants over a period of 10 to 12 years.
The latest approach by the White House suggests a key development in negotiations over some 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, and face deportation as early as March.
"We are going to morph into it," Trump told reporters about the citizenship provision. "It's going to happen, at some point in the future, over a period of 10 to 12 years."
In exchange, Trump said he is seeking $25 billion to build a border wall, one of the main pledges of his 2016 presidential campaign, plus an additional $5 billion in other border security measures including electronic surveillance and extra border agents.
US lawmakers have struggled for months to negotiate a compromise over the status of the dreamers. An impasse over the issue, a source of bitter partisan tension in Washington, recently shut down the government for three days.
"Tell them not to be concerned" as the March 5 deadline approaches, Trump said of the Dreamers. "It's up to the Democrats, but they should not be worried."
In reaching a deal to resume federal operations, the Senate's Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Congress would aim to negotiate an immigration agreement by February 8, and if a deal is not struck by then, the issue would be taken up in debate on the Senate floor.
Although Trump did not provide full details on the pathway to citizenship, his comments are perhaps the most telling sign that a broader deal might be within reach.
They came just hours after the White House announced it will release a "legislative framework" for immigration reform on Monday that it said is acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans.
"After decades of inaction by Congress, it's time we work together to solve this issue once and for all," White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told journalists.
"The White House will release a legislative framework on Monday that represents a compromise that members of both parties can support," which is based on "dozens" of meetings with Republican and Democratic leadership and legislators, she said.
- 'Moral obligation' -
The plan would fulfill "four agreed-upon pillars" of immigration reform, she added: border security including the all funding, curbing extended family reunification known as "chain migration," cancelling the green-card visa lottery, and providing a permanent solution on DACA.
The first three pillars are largely Republican priorities, while the last -- fixing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program -- is a cause championed by the Democrats.
DACA, which was instituted by Trump's predecessor Barack Obama in 2012, protects the Dreamers from deportation.
Trump said in September he was scrapping DACA, throwing the future of those it covers into doubt, but delayed enforcement to give Congress until March to craft a lasting solution.
Democrats unsuccessfully sought to tie a solution to the DACA issue to a stop-gap measure to fund the federal government, but Republicans rejected the effort, leading to a shutdown from Saturday to Monday.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican pointman on the immigration negotiations, hailed Trump's comments as a major breakthrough.
"With this strong statement by President Trump, I have never felt better about our chances of finding a solution on immigration," Graham said in a statement.
Trump's "support for a pathway to citizenship will help us get strong border security measures as we work to modernize a broken immigration system."
Trump's remarks signified key movement in a debate that appeared to stall Tuesday after Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer withdrew an offer to fund the president's border wall.
"Cryin' Chuck Schumer fully understands, especially after his humiliating defeat, that if there is no Wall, there is no DACA," Trump tweeted late Tuesday.
Exactly how a pathway to citizenship will sit with conservative Republicans remains unclear. Several have opposed the process as "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.
In a speech to colleagues, Democrat Schumer said it was "our moral obligation" to protect dreamers, and that the Senate was in the spotlight over crafting a deal by February 8.
"If we don't solve this problem in 14 days, the Republicans are going to have to explain to dreamers what their plan is to prevent them from being deported," Schumer said.