WASHINGTON — The fate of 800,000 young immigrants hung in the balance Thursday as top lawmakers, White House officials and President Donald Trump himself squabbled over whether an agreement had been struck to protect them — and if so, exactly what it was.
In face of an intense backlash from conservatives inside the Capitol and out, Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP House members adamantly insisted that there was no agreement to enshrine protections for the immigrants brought to America as children and now here illegally.
John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, put it this way: There was "a deal to make a deal."
Trump himself said he was "fairly close" to an agreement that could protect the young "Dreamers" while also adding border security, as long as his long-promised wall with Mexico was also separately addressed. Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — whose dinner with Trump Wednesday night was at the heart of the controversy — insisted there was discussion and even agreement on legislation that would offer eventual citizenship to the immigrants in question.
"We agreed it would be the DREAM Act," Schumer told reporters, referring to a bipartisan bill that would allow immigrants brought here as children and now in the U.S. illegally to work their way to citizenship in as little as five years if they meet certain requirements.
What was clear was that the outcome for the "Dreamers" themselves was still unresolved and subject to much further debate and negotiation — and that the politics of immigration, which has defeated Congress for years, remained as tricky and explosive as ever. After winning the White House on a campaign that was remarkably harsh toward immigrants and revolved around construction of an enormous wall along the entire border with Mexico, Trump's sudden pivot infuriated some of his closest allies, and seemed to contain more potential to alienate his base than any of his other unconventional moves.
"He was so explicit during the campaign on the issue of the border wall and border security that if he were to backtrack on that promise I don't think he'd have a single friend left in the country," said GOP Rep. Tom McClintock of California.