Donald Trump doesn’t care about immigration policy. That claim may sound obscene to the 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants who just lost their right to live in the United States; or the 700,000 Dreamers who are on the cusp of losing theirs; or the tens of thousands of refugees who lost the chance to make a new life in the United States; or the undocumented 7-Eleven employees who can’t go to work today; or the 13,600 noncriminal immigrants who were arrested by ICE agents last year — all as a direct result of Trump administration policies.
But sometimes, the truth is an obscenity.
The president certainly has an aversion to nonwhite immigrants — whom he associates with disease and criminality — and he is fond of displaying his “toughness” on such “bad hombres.” Which is to say: He is a racist who values the approval and affirmation of other racists. And this xenophobic worldview has shaped his immigration agenda.
But a genuine investment in the details of immigration law — and a deep-seated commitment to changing it in concrete ways — has not. Trump, like his fellow Fox News addicts, is far more invested in the symbolism of immigration restrictionism than its substance.
This offers Democrats an opportunity in the ongoing negotiations over a DACA replacement: If the party helps Trump deliver on his symbolic priorities, they can probably secure far more consequential reforms on substantive issues. In other words: They can probably win mercy for many of the most vulnerable people in the United States, if they just give Trump his stupid wall.
For this president, symbol trumps substance.
That the president does not actually care about immigration policy on a substantive level is apparent in his contortions on DACA. Over the past four months, the president has canceled the Obama-era program; implored Congressional Republicans to provide permanent legal status to its recipients; suggested that if they didn’t, he would reinstate administrative protections for those 700,000 Dreamers unilaterally; reached a tentative agreement with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on a bill that would trade such protections for border-security funding; announced that he actually opposed giving legal status to Dreamers, unless such an amnesty were paired with drastic reductions to legal immigration and funding for his border wall; clarified that he would actually take modest changes to legal immigration and mere border security funds; voiced approval of a clean DACA bill with no border security measures whatsoever; decided that, actually, border wall funding was necessary; and then promised to sign any immigration bill that makes it to his desk, regardless of its content.
This incoherence is characteristic of the president’s broader views on immigration over the past decade. In 2012, the mogul derided Mitt Romney’s “mean-spirited” policy of self-deportation (making life so miserable for undocumented immigrants they chose to exit the country voluntarily). In 2013, he voiced support for comprehensive immigration reform. Two years later, he decided that Mexican immigrants were mostly rapists and criminals who should be deported en masse — but, also, that you have to give a pathway to citizenship to most of the “30 million” undocumented immigrants in the United States:
That Trump would trade substantive gains on immigration restriction for symbolic ones is explicit in his budget plans. To finance his border wall, the president has asked Congress “to cut or delay funding for border surveillance, radar technology, patrol boats and customs agents in its upcoming spending plan to curb illegal immigration,” the New York Times reported this week. There is no serious question that prioritizing a wall over these measures would make the border less secure, and increase the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. But the wall is a more potent symbol than new funding for radar technology; so the wall is what Trump wants.
Democrats are struggling to deal.
Right now, the Democratic Party is tearing itself apart over what to offer the GOP in exchange for a DREAM Act. The party’s leadership is reportedly closing in on a deal that would provide legal status to 700,000 Dreamers, but at the cost of new funds for border security, new restrictions on family-based migration, and the curtailment of the diversity visa lottery. The Democratic rank and file don’t want to pay the GOP’s ransom.
This recalcitrance is understandable. There is broad, bipartisan support — among both the general public and members of Congress — for giving legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Even Trump half the time sees DACA as a positive good. And the GOP leadership surely fears the political costs of inaction. There is no precedent for stripping legal status from a group of people this numerous, let alone one 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.
A “clean” DACA bill — one that simply provided Dreamers with legal status — could probably pass Congress with Democratic and moderate Republican votes. Add in an appropriation for border security and it definitely would. Negotiators aren’t attaching restrictions to legal immigration to the DACA bill because they can’t pass it without such provisions — they’re doing so to keep House conservatives from pillorying the Republican leadership.
So, there’s a case to be made for calling the GOP’s bluff. But there’s also a reasonable case against doing so. Getting Republicans to blink will likely require forcing a government shutdown — and while DACA polls well, forcing a shutdown in its defense does not. Ten Democratic senators will seek reelection in a state Trump won this fall; some, in ones that he won by double digits. Team Blue has an outside shot at taking back Senate control, but to do so they’ll probably need their red-state incumbents to run the table. Taking back the Senate could prevent Trump from packing the federal judiciary (including the Supreme Court) with reactionaries who’ll swat down progressive legislation for the next four decades. The stakes are high. If shutting down the government for a clean DACA bill would make it much harder for Claire McCaskill and Joe Donnelly to return to the upper chamber next year, it’d be best to avoid doing so.
If you build it, they will come around on more important issues.
The best way out of this pickle is to give Trump his big, dumb wall. Yes, the wall is idiotic and a big waste of money — but it isn’t that big of a waste of money. The president wants $18 billion over ten years; the Pentagon spends about $125 billion on needless bureaucracy every five years — according to the Pentagon. And Trump’s No. 1 priority on immigration also happens to be his most harmless: A jobs program that pays underemployed, border-state construction workers to stack concrete in the desert will hurt far fewer people than restrictions on family-based immigration. And yet, Democrats appear more comfortable supporting the latter, even though the former would surely buy them bigger concessions.
Chuck Schumer should offer to fund Trump’s wall, in full — if Trump agrees to give every immigrant whose Temporary Protected Status just got revoked permanent, legal status, and a pathway to citizenship to all Dreamers and their parents — or, heck, to all 11 million undocumented immigrants. That was Trump’s position as of two years ago, after all. And would this president really want to turn down the opportunity to have his border wall — and the accolades from the mainstream media for his historic, bipartisan legislative achievement, too?
The GOP doesn’t have the votes to give Trump what he truly wants on immigration. A coalition of Democrats, GOP moderates, and conservatives who care more about displaying loyalty to Trump than right-wing dogma on immigration, would.
Maybe Trump wouldn’t bite on a “wall for amnesty” swap. But given the immense humanitarian upside of such a deal — and the modest fiscal downside — it’s certainly worth a try.