Could Trump Hold Dreamers Hostage for Border-Wall Funding?

There’s a cabal in the administration that believes extending Obama’s DACA program is the bargaining chip that will get it immigration restrictions and border-wall money. Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

President Trump is headed to Phoenix for a rally tonight. It’s the same city and state where nearly a year ago he delivered his definitive campaign speech on immigration policy, wherein he doubled down on a tough policy of deporting or threatening to deport anyone who had entered the country illegally.

Last year in Phoenix, Trump did not specifically address the issue of Dreamers — about 800,000 young immigrants brought into the country illegally as children who had fulfilled a list of “good behavior” requirements for protection from prosecution, as provided by an Obama executive order in 2012 (known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). But he did say this:

“There will be no amnesty,” Trump said. “Our message to the world will be this: You cannot obtain legal status or become a citizen of the United States by illegally entering our country.

This and similar remarks ruling out exceptions to a “leave the country and get in line” posture on undocumented immigrants have reinforced the impression that Dreamers may not be the first to be deported by a Trump administration, but can’t count on further protection, either. But some ambiguity has remained, particularly after the administration rescinded an Obama executive order, known as DAPA, protecting the parents of Dreamers (which had already been frozen by a federal judge) but chose not to mess with DACA, for the time being, at least. And now rumors are intensifying that Team Trump may want to use the status of Dreamers as bait to get a bipartisan deal in Congress tightening immigration generally and funding the famous border wall. Here’s the latest report from McClatchy:

White House officials want Trump to strike an ambitious deal with Congress that offers Dreamers protection in exchange for legislation that pays for a border wall and more detention facilities, curbs legal immigration and implements E-verify, an online system that allows businesses to check immigration status, according to a half-dozen people familiar with situation, most involved with the negotiations.

The group includes former and current White House chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and John Kelly, the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, who both serve as presidential advisers, they said. Others who have not been as vocal publicly about their stance but are thought to agree include Vice President Mike Pence, who as a congressman worked on a failed immigration deal that called for citizenship, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, a Democrat who serves as director of the National Economic Council.

We are told that the usual hard-liners, including Attorney General Sessions and his protégé, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, are opposing the deal. And while the McClatchy piece doesn’t mention recently departed White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, one could quickly imagine his Breitbart News thundering at the “globalists” in the administration talking Trump into breaking a campaign promise dear to the hearts of Trump supporters.

But the wild card in the deck is that the administration’s hand is being forced on DACA by a group of governors and attorneys general representing ten Republican-controlled states alleging that it’s unconstitutional just like DAPA — and who may soon maneuver the issue onto the docket of the same Texas federal judge who effectively killed DAPA, Andrew Hanen. They’ve given the administration until September 5 to agree to phase out DACA or submit the program to the tender mercies of Judge Hanen.

So the time for a deal involving DACA that would solidify its legal status is right now. And the timing is also ideal because it may be the only way for the administration to secure border-wall funding without threatening or executing a government shutdown when current appropriations run out at the end of September.

For all the talk of internal divisions in the administration over using the extension of DACA as a bargaining chip for a larger immigration deal, it’s not entirely clear congressional Democrats would go along in numbers sufficient to offset Republican immigration hard-liners. If the deal aimed at “comprehensive immigration reform”— the buzzword for legislation that would create a path to citizenship for most or all undocumented immigrants now in the country — that might be tempting to many Democrats given the low odds of that happening during a Trump presidency. But that really would set off the Breitbartians into a frenzy of betrayal charges. So any immigration deal-makers at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue could have a tough row to hoe, even if Donald Trump doesn’t backtrack into nativist rhetoric in Phoenix tonight.

Could Trump Hold Dreamers Hostage for Border-Wall Funding?