WASHINGTON -- Some immigrants may have been "too afraid" or "too lazy" to sign up for the Obama-era program that offers protection from deportation, White House chief of staff John Kelly said Tuesday as he defended President Donald Trump's proposal on the divisive issue.
Kelly discounted the possibility that Trump would announce a temporary extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program beyond March 5, when its protections could expire. He said the administration would not ask Congress to set a later date to give bargainers more time to reach a bipartisan deal, but said the government would not start deporting "Dreamers" who don't have criminal records.
"They are not a priority for deportation," he told reporters.
Kelly spoke as lawmakers have deadlocked in an effort to reach an immigration compromise. Barring an unlikely last-minute agreement, the Senate is expected to begin debating the issue next week, and it is unclear what if any plan will survive.
"We just don't know where 60 votes are for any particular proposal," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., citing the votes needed for passage. Republicans have a slim majority and any measure will need around a dozen Democratic votes to succeed.
Kelly said Trump's recent offer to provide a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million immigrants went "beyond what anyone could have imagined." A bipartisan offer by six senators that Trump rejected would have made citizenship possible for the 690,000 "Dreamers" registered under the program, nicknamed DACA, which shields immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and stayed here illegally.
"There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number, to 1.8 million," Kelly said. "The difference between (690,000) and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn't sign up."
Immigration experts cite various reasons why people eligible for DACA's protections do not apply. These include lack of knowledge about the program, a worry that participating will expose them to deportation and an inability to afford registration fees.
"I'm sorry for that characterization. It doesn't surprise me from Gen. Kelly," No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois, his party's chief immigration negotiator, said of the White House staff chief's remarks.
At a later bargaining session among lawmakers and White House officials, No. 2 House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland "had an exchange" with Kelly about the comments, Durbin said.
Hoyer later declined to describe his comments, saying, "I want to get a deal done."
Durbin also scoffed at Kelly's assertion that "Dreamers" would not be deported after the March 5 deadline arrives.
"It's cold comfort to DACA people that if Congress does nothing, they're still safe in the loving arms of the Department of Homeland Security," said Durbin.
With leaders working on a separate track toward a budget pact, Trump threw a knuckle ball into the mix, saying he'd "love to see a shutdown" if Democrats didn't meet his immigration demands.
Trump said last September that he was ending DACA but gave lawmakers until March 5 to pass legislation shielding the Dreamers. A federal judge has indefinitely blocked Trump from terminating the program's protections, blunting the deadline's immediate impact.
Many lawmakers are uneasy about what might happen to the Dreamers after March 5, and Democrats - and Trump himself - are using that uncertainty as leverage to help force a deal.
Kelly rejected the idea of asking lawmakers to extend the deadline, saying, "What makes them act is pressure."
In exchange for making citizenship a possibility, Trump wants $25 billion for border security, including money to build parts of his coveted wall along the U.S.-Mexico boundary. He also wants to curb legal immigration, restricting the relatives that legal immigrants could sponsor for citizenship and ending a lottery that distributes visas to people from diverse places like Africa.
"I can't imagine men and women of good will who begged this president to solve the problem of DACA" would oppose Trump's proposal, Kelly said. He added, "Right now, the champion of all people who are DACA is Donald Trump."
Democrats strongly oppose limiting legal immigration, and conservatives are against giving citizenship to DACA recipients, and Trump's bill has gotten little traction in Congress. Durbin, his party's chief vote counter, said Trump's proposal would not get 60 Senate votes, saying, "I don't think it will get any votes on the Democratic side."
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed to this report.