Donald Trump just made Democrats an offer they can’t accept. In a Friday-morning tweet, the president issued an ultimatum: Build me a border wall — and make it harder for legal immigrants to bring their foreign family members into the United States (a.k.a. “chain migration”) — or the Dreamers get it.
On Thursday, Breitbart reported that the GOP’s congressional leadership presented a nearly identical deal to House conservatives:
At least two House GOP members told Breitbart News that leadership — including Ryan — has been presenting the DACA deal to membership as something along these lines: In exchange for legislatively granting amnesty to recipients of DACA, Republicans will get funding for President Trump’s border wall, an end to chain migration including language from a bill from Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) that would do so, an end to the visa lottery, and E-Verify. That would be accompanied by various other border enforcement and interior enforcement measures on immigration. Most importantly, the deal would take those numbers of DACA recipients who would be granted amnesty legislatively out of the total of allowed legal immigrants per year — offsetting the damage that they do to the U.S. economy.
Perhaps these hard-line demands make tactical sense as an opening bid in negotiations. But Trump’s proposal is (almost certainly) dead on arrival as a final offer. Congressional Democrats have been unyielding in their opposition to a border wall, and have no interest in abetting drastic reductions to legal immigration (they are, however, probably open to ending the “diversity lottery”). And they’re not alone: In September, a USA Today survey found that less than 25 percent of congressional Republicans approved of funding Trump’s border wall. Meanwhile, Tom Cotton’s RAISE Act — which would drastically reduce immigration by, among other things, ending “chain migration” — attracted sharp intra-party opposition, particularly in the Senate. In all likelihood, some far-right Republicans will vote against any bill that provides nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants (who are law-abiding, gainfully employed, and were brought to the U.S. as children) with legal status. Passing a DACA deal will require the votes of Democrats and pro-immigration Republicans. Trump’s demands are all but certain to lose such votes — especially since such lawmakers have reason to think that the president’s bluffing.
By all accounts, Trump was reluctant to cancel the Obama-era program that provided Dreamers with work visas, in the first place. It took intense lobbying by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to get the president to end DACA. And even then, Trump immediately called on Congress to grant its beneficiaries some form of protection from deportation — and suggested that if Congress failed to do so, then he might protect them, himself, through executive action.
This history strongly suggests that Trump does not see legal status for Dreamers as a painful concession to his enemies, but rather, as a good in and of itself. Or, at least, that he sees it that way some of the time.
And Democrats have cause for believing that the GOP leadership sees it that way, too. Enthusiasm for deporting Dreamers isolates the GOP’s activist base from the rest of the country, including the Republican rank and file. A Morning Consult poll in September found that 69 percent of Republicans — and two-thirds of Trump voters — want undocumented immigrants who meet DACA’s requirements to be given either citizenship or legal status. And the GOP’s corporate donors — who just amply demonstrated their capacity to dictate terms to Capitol Hill — have little interest in deporting Dreamers, restricting legal immigration, or building border walls.
If Paul Ryan respects Breitbart’s red lines, his party will have a steep price to pay. There is no precedent for stripping legal status from a group of people this numerous, let alone a group so deeply integrated into American society. Dreamers have allies in corporate America, churches, unions, colleges, and countless local and state governments. The backlash to their dispossession will be huge and unrelenting. Republicans are already poised for a historic rebuke next November. Letting DACA expire without a replacement could turn a wave election into a tsunami.
Granted, Democrats are facing far more direct pressure from their constituents to reach a DACA deal than Republicans are. But the progressive grassroots’ opposition to the border wall and ending family reunification are nearly as fierce. Further, a segment of immigration activists are actually ambivalent about a “DREAM Act” that fails to provide protections to Dreamers’ parents and/or to all 11 million undocumented immigrants. By targeting relief at the most empowered segment of the undocumented population, such activists worry that a DACA deal could hamper mobilization behind broader reforms, while perpetuating a harmful dichotomy between “good” undocumented immigrants and “bad” ones.
Which is to say, Democrats probably stand to gain politically from killing a DACA deal that includes border-wall funding and the abolition of chain migration. Both the broader public — and the party’s activist base — would likely be on their side. Further, such a standoff would likely precipitate a government shutdown, a development that’s more likely to damage the party in power than its opposition.
All this said: Congressional Republicans have proven their capacity to make heinously unpopular policy choices, while Democrats have already proven reluctant to trigger a shutdown for DACA’s sake.
Nevertheless, the weight of the evidence suggests that Democrats have the upper hand in the DACA fight — but that the vocal minority of Republican voters who disdain amnesty in all its forms (along with the president’s formidable ego) could prevent the GOP from accepting this fact. In January, an unstoppable force may meet an immovable object — and put the lives of hundreds of thousands of American-raised immigrants, and our government’s ability to perform its most basic functions, in peril.