Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., rallies in support of the “Dreamers” during a protest on Capitol Hill. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press)

By Carolyn Lochhead
Published: January 27, 2018
Updated: January 27, 2018 8:36 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s newly released plan to resolve the fate of young immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children would constitute the biggest change to immigration policy in decades, putting Democrats and their allies in a painful vise.

The proposal would provide 1.8 million young immigrants a path to citizenship, many more than the 690,000 currently enrolled under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, that had served as a baseline for plans by both parties to provide them permanent legal status.

In exchange, the administration wants major new border and interior immigration enforcement, and a commitment for a $25 billion “trust fund” for President Trump’s promised wall on the southern border to Mexico as part of the deal.

But the biggest battleground may be Trump’s proposal to limit future family-based visas to spouses and young children, eliminating an immigrant’s ability to sponsor parents, siblings and adult children.

These family visas have formed the foundation of U.S. immigration policy since 1965, were reaffirmed in the last major immigration overhaul in 1990, and profoundly altered the nation’s ethnic composition.

Eliminating future family visas could eventually cut legal immigration — now 1.2 million people each year — in half.

Democrats are under intense political pressure to protect immigrants who arrived in the country as children and were raised as Americans, including those who were eligible for DACA but did not enroll, some out of fear of revealing themselves to federal authorities.

But the party also deeply opposes limits on legal migration, especially based on family ties. If the young immigrants get a reprieve, experts said, it could come at a dear cost to others who come from other nations to live in the U.S.

“The administration intended DACA to be a chip that they were going to play from the very beginning to extract other concessions on immigration,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

Having canceled the DACA program last fall, Trump set a March 5 deadline for Congress to replace it. Although a federal judge issued an injunction to keep the program alive pending higher court review, the young immigrants stand to lose their right to work, travel and attend school. They could eventually face deportation. Lawmakers in both parties, fearing an adverse court ruling either way, insist on a permanent legislative fix.

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