President Trump sees himself as a masterful dealmaker, and he has begun signaling that he believes he can land perhaps the thorniest of transactions in Washington: immigration reform.
Trump sparked a flurry of speculation when he privately told television anchors over lunch this week that he could support a compromise that allowed people with no criminal record to stay in the country and work and pay taxes.
Hours later, Trump made a last-minute addition to his high-profile speech before Congress, calling for an immigration overhaul that improves wages and increases security.
“Real and positive immigration reform is possible,” he said. “… If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens, then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”
But immigration experts are skeptical Trump has the attention span or the desire to pass a sweeping immigration overhaul, a deeply complicated undertaking that has failed twice in Washington in the last decade and would represent an about-face from Trump’s hard-line campaign stance against illegal immigration and crackdown on migrants since he took office.
“It’s not something I would take to the bank,” said Angela Kelley, an immigration expert at the Open Society Policy Center. “If he’s read his own executive orders, he would probably understand the skepticism.”
Trump’s actions in his first month in office set his administration on a path toward a harsh deportation program that is already sweeping up many of the same people that an immigration reform package would protect from removal.
During his first week, the president wiped away restrictions on immigration officers, opening the door to deportations for millions of immigrants in the country illegally, and ordered the Department of Homeland Security to hire 10,000 more deportation officers and 5,000 more Border Patrol agents.
Politically, Trump has little room to maneuver. Over the last 20 months, Trump propelled himself first to the Republican nomination for president and then to the White House by railing against illegal immigration, and he would face an uproar from his base if he signed a bill that created a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally.
“There’s a difference between sacrificing your principles to get a deal, and working with others, consistent with your principles, to get a deal,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.
Nevertheless, Trump told news anchors over chicken and spinach gnocchi in the White House that the “time is right for an immigration bill” and that positions on both sides need to be “softened,” according to a White House official present for the discussion.
The remark may have been mostly a reflection of Trump’s penchant for playing to his audience — in this case, journalists demanding answers about whether he can work with Congress on his top policy issue.
“Frankly, one of the anchors said, ‘If anyone can get a deal, it would be you,’” Spicer told reporters Wednesday. “Obviously, he was pleased with that because it’s true.”
Trump has expressed a willingness to ease his stance on immigration before. He told senators as recently as two weeks ago that they should revive a 2013 proposal that passed in the Senate but died in the House.
And in a news conference last month, Trump wavered when asked whether he will end President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields from deportation some young people who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
“The DACA situation is a very, very — it’s a very difficult thing for me because, you know, I love these kids, I love kids, I have kids and grandkids. And I find it very, very hard doing what the law says exactly to do and, you know, the law is rough,” Trump said.
In addition, despite his campaign promise to end the Obama-era program that gives work permits to those young people, known as “Dreamers,” Trump has allowed his administration to continue to issue them.
Top aides, however, have identified ways to end the program without Trump’s fingerprints, including through legal guidance issued by the departments of Homeland Security or Justice or through a lawsuit brought by states that the administration could decline to defend.
“If he does open the door to immigration reform, he is perhaps uniquely positioned to pass immigration reform that eluded his predecessors, Obama and Bush,” said Alfonso Aguilar, head of the advocacy group Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
Trump has the trust of immigration hard-liners, Aguilar noted, but he also has expressed a willingness to find a solution for people who are basically law-abiding and want to work in the country.
“Ironically, perhaps, Trump is the one that can do it,” Aguilar said.
Supporters see some consistency in Trump’s stance, pointing out that Trump has long believed tough enforcement and border security must come first, before any accommodation can be made for people in the country illegally.
The most significant new immigration proposal in his address to lawmakers was about revamping legal immigration, an overhaul that would require action by Congress.
Trump proposed tilting admissions into the U.S. toward skilled workers to allow in people who are less likely to use federal assistance or compete with low-wage workers. The current U.S. system favors family unification and those from around the globe who are striving to take advantage of American opportunity.
3:20 p.m., March 1: This story was updated throughout with new details.
8:45 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Trump’s address to Congress.
This story was originally published Feb. 28 at 5:40 p.m.