Trump Has Lost the Upper Hand in the Immigration Fight

Trumped. Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Last September, the Trump administration announced that it would be ending Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Executive branch program that had provided 700,000 undocumented immigrants, who were brought to the U.S. as children, with temporary legal status. In explaining this decision, Attorney General Jeff Sessions argued that DACA was illegitimate as a matter of constitutional law, and inadvisable as a matter of policy.

Hours later, the president implored Congress to give some form of amnesty to Dreamers — and suggested that he might reinstate the (ostensibly unconstitutional) DACA program if Congress failed to act.

Trump’s position on the issue is as incoherent today as it was then. Throughout negotiations over an immigration package, Trump has presented amnesty for Dreamers as an urgent necessity — and also, an odious concession that is only acceptable when paired with a restrictionist revolution in American immigration policy. This contradiction reflects ideological divisions within both the White House and congressional GOP. But it also reflects the president’s clumsy attempt to execute a bluff.

Before he took the Dreamers hostage, Trump couldn’t get Congress to give his border wall — or proposed cuts to legal immigration — any serious attention. In recent weeks, as DACA’s final expiration date crept closer, congressional Democrats were ready to throw billions at Trump’s monument to American xenophobia, if it would buy Dreamers some peace of mind (and/or spare Chuck Schumer the hassle of trying to mediate between the demands of #TheResistance and those of Joe Manchin). But the president turned that offer down, opting to hold out for draconian reductions to legal immigration.

It now looks like Trump pushed his luck.

In order to secure policy victories through hostage-taking, you need to be willing to shoot the hostages — or at least, capable of convincing your opponents that you’re willing to shoot them. And the president, and his party, have given every indication that they aren’t ready to pull that trigger. On Monday, Politico reported on the latest (and most blatant) tell:

Congress may just end up punting on its Dreamer dilemma.

As lawmakers grasp for a solution for the young undocumented immigrants, one option is a temporary extension — perhaps one year — of their legal protections paired with a little bit of cash for border security.

… [A] bare-bones Dreamers bill would be likely to face resistance in the House, where conservative Republicans are already complaining that even the White House framework — which calls for sharp restrictions to the family-based immigration system — is too generous to young undocumented immigrants.

Lawmakers may soon have no choice, however.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has discussed how a temporary DACA fix could be accompanied by equally short-term measures.

If the choice facing Democrats was between accepting permanent reductions in family-based immigration and seeing Dreamers dispossessed and deported in large numbers, it’s plausible that Team Blue would give Stephen Miller what he wants. But the actual choice appears to be: Accept drastic, right-wing changes to immigration and secure permanent legal status for Dreamers — or reject those changes and secure temporary legal status for them.

Given that the Dreamers’ own advocacy groups believe Trump’s ransom isn’t worth paying, Democrats have no reason to pick door No.1. One year from now, the party will (almost certainly) have more power at the federal level than it does today. Thus, it makes little sense to cut a permanent deal now, if that requires gutting family-based immigration rules that a wide variety of Democratic constituencies value.

And the evidence that Republicans aren’t actually willing to strip legal status from Dreamers extends well beyond Politico’s dispatch. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews demonstrates, a large majority of the American people (upwards of 75 percent in multiple polls) want Dreamers to be allowed to stay here legally. And the Republican leadership, from Donald Trump to Mitch McConnell, has been thoroughly unwilling to tell such voters that they’re wrong. Trump’s Department of Homeland Security has felt compelled to promise (however emptily) not to deport law-abiding Dreamers, even after they lose their legal status. And, after a federal judge in California ordered the Trump administration to reinstate DACA (on grounds that most experts regard as legally shaky), the White House declined to seek a stay of that decision, opting instead to reopen renewal applications for the program — ostensibly welcoming the opportunity to extend DACA well past the initial deadline of March 5.

While it’s hard to reconcile that decision with Jeff Sessions’s rhetoric, it’s perfectly compatible with the GOP’s best interests. Put simply, DACA worked great for Republicans. The “Dreamers” issue drives a wedge between one part of their base and the rest of the country. Republicans’ fear of angering the former makes it hard for them to vote for legalizing Dreamers; their fear of alienating the latter prevents them from calling for the mass deportation of 700,000 American-raised, law-abiding, gainfully employed people (who have deep ties to American companies, churches, universities, and communities). An Executive branch program that sidelines the issue — giving Dreamers legal status, while keeping them disenfranchised, and congressional Republicans insulated from nativist backlash — was an elegant solution to the party’s dilemma. Alas, there was short-term political gain in painting Barack Obama as a tyrant willing to shred the Constitution to help “illegals.” So now, Republicans have to find a legislative way of safely escorting the Dreamers back into purgatory.

All of which is to say: Unless Trump or his party indicates that temporary legal status isn’t an option, Democrats have the leverage in immigration negotiations. Team Blue can live with one more year of limbo for Dreamers. By contrast, it’s unclear how ready Trump is to live with another year of failing to fund his wall. And if the president wants to save face on that score, he’s going to need to put permanent status for Dreamers on the table — and take cuts to legal immigration off of it.

Trump Has Lost the Upper Hand in the Immigration Fight