Suggestions that the White House might seek a compromise on immigration drew stern warnings Tuesday from hawks who favor the tough stance President Donald Trump took on the campaign trail.
The president told reporters Tuesday that the “time is right for an immigration bill as long as there is compromise on both sides.”
“If he goes down that road, his presidency is essentially over … That’s straight out of Jeb Bush’s book — literally; it’s the book he wrote for his campaign.”
A senior administration official told reporters that a compromise might include legal status — but not citizenship — for millions of illegal immigrants who have not committed other crimes.
“Is he going to go full Jeb Bush?” asked Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. “If he goes down that road, his presidency is essentially over … That’s straight out of Jeb Bush’s book — literally; it’s the book he wrote for his campaign.”
Trump spoke about immigration during his joint address to Congress  Tuesday, but he offered scant evidence of a major shift on the issue. The speech included only the tiniest hint — the president said that “real and positive immigration reform is possible.” As long as lawmakers keep the well-being of American citizens in mind, “Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades,” Trump said.
Critics of wide-open immigration policies said they hope such rhetoric does not signal a newfound openness to agree to anything that resembles amnesty for illegal immigrants.
“If he goes there, we’ll have to rescind our endorsement of him,” Americans for Legal Immigration PAC founder William Gheen told LifeZette before the speech. “It’s not something we take lightly at all.”
Gheen said a compromise that included legal status but not a path to citizenship is not a meaningful distinction. The eventual result, he predicted, would be that the courts or a future Congress would grant citizenship to the amnesty recipients.
"That's a dirty trick that we've fought before," he said.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the main harm of mass amnesty would not be citizenship but increased pressure on low-income Americans in the job market.
"It doesn't really matter to them whether there is a path to citizenship," he said.
Krikorian said a "compromise" on immigration necessarily would entail negotiations between the administration and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a wily politician with years of legislative experience. For all Trump's prowess negotiating real estate deals, Krikorian said, the legislative process is a completely different animal.
"I'd bet on Chuck Schumer every single time," he said.
Krikorian said it would be reasonable to trade something small, such as permanent legal status for illegal immigrants who benefited from former President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, in exchange for reductions in legal immigration. He said at some point, after full enforcement measures and border security have been in place for years and have proved to be working, amnesty might be warranted.
But improved enforcement and amnesty can never be part of the same legislation, Krikorian said.
"The leverage is the amnesty," he said.
Immigration hawks praised the actual speech.
"We were thrilled to hear the president once again place struggling American workers at center stage in the rationale for strong immigration enforcement," NumbersUSA President Roy Beck said in a prepared statement. "The best news for workers was the president's insistence that legal immigration must be reformed so it will stop depressing wages."
FAIR President Dan Stein said in his statement: "By prioritizing removals of criminal aliens, the administration is demonstrating its commitment to ensuring that American families don't suffer at the hands of those who shouldn't be in the country in the first place."
Whether Trump will follow through on the idea of compromise, or whether it was merely a trial balloon that will disappear into the ether, will be left for another day.