Trump’s Position on Dreamers Is Indefensible — and He Knows It

Deplorable. Photo: Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump has been lying to the public about his position in the (current) debate over Dreamers since the day it began. On September 5, the White House cancelled Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era program that had given American-raised undocumented immigrants the chance to secure temporary immunity from deportation. The president did not defend this decision on its merits. He had no interest in arguing that, contrary to popular opinion, gainfully employed, law-abiding Dreamers should be evicted from the only country they call home. Instead, he claimed that continuing the program wasn’t actually an option — that DACA was simply unconstitutional.

But this claim was baseless. The judiciary has repeatedly affirmed the Executive branch’s right to set priorities for immigration enforcement, and to supply temporary work permits to the undocumented. The administration’s constitutional theory was so dubious, multiple federal judges have since ruled that it renders the (otherwise legal) decision to cancel DACA “arbitrary and capricious” — and thus, illegitimate. Even the White House didn’t seem to believe its own rationale. In announcing the decision, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spent much of his remarks making a substantive case against allowing Dreamers to remain in this country. And despite claiming that DACA was a violation of our nation’s founding document, the president declared that he would keep it in place for another six months — or, perhaps, even longer than that, in the event that Congress failed to pass a legislative fix by early March.

And yet, the president has largely succeeded in obscuring the origins of today’s immigration fight. The fact that the White House has never offered a coherent explanation for why it cancelled DACA — given the policy’s (newly affirmed) constitutionality, and the president’s self-professed support for Dreamers — is almost never mentioned in coverage of immigration debate on Capitol Hill.

And now, Trump is on the cusp of successfully obscuring the cause of that debate’s demise.

On Thursday, the Senate voted on a series of immigration proposals, all of which failed to attract a filibuster-proof majority. But a bipartisan package that combined a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, a provision barring said Dreamers from sponsoring the legal immigration of their parents, and $25 billion for the president’s border wall came close, winning 54 votes. The president’s proposal, which included sweeping reductions to legal immigration, only secured 39.

The media has (largely) framed these developments as a testament to Capitol Hill’s intractable divisions on immigration, or else, as a bipartisan failure to accept legislative compromise. But the truth is far more sinister: On Thursday, the president sabotaged a bipartisan immigration bill because he believes he will be able to force Democrats to do his bidding, once he regains the power to deport all Dreamers.

That isn’t partisan hyperbole or speculation. It is the plain fact of the matter. And you don’t need to take my word for it — take the White House’s:

The White House has been telling Republican senators that it expects the Supreme Court to overturn the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling extending protections for undocumented immigrants under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The implication is that what is now an indefinite grace period would quickly disappear — and that Democrats would be without leverage and forced to accept more Republican demands in order to codify DACA.

At present, former DACA recipients are eligible to apply to renew their work permits, thanks to the aforementioned federal-court rulings. If and when the Supreme Court overturns those, however, all Dreamers will become subject to deportation. The White House believes that Democrats won’t have the stomach to abide their constituents’ ensuing suffering, and will thus, have no choice but to support sweeping cuts to legal immigration.

So, the administration killed the Senate’s compromise: Republican senators have told multiple outlets that the bipartisan bill would have had the votes “had the White House stayed on the sidelines” instead of actively lobbying against it. If Trump had enthusiastically endorsed the proposal — which combined a bipartisan measure he has claimed to support (legal status for Dreamers), with a far-right one he has championed as a top priority (full funding for his border wall) — there is little doubt that the bill would have made it out of the upper chamber.

Trump’s actual position — that Dreamers should be kept in a state of perpetual fear so that Democrats will accept restrictions to legal immigration — is not viable with a mainstream audience. And he knows this. Which is why his administration has told nothing but bald-faced lies about what actually happened in the Senate on Thursday.

In a statement released Friday, the White House claimed that the “Schumer Democrats” had “filibustered” the president’s proposal, out of allegiance to an “open-border fringe” that opposes “any immigration control at all.” All of these claims are false. No filibuster was required to defeat Trump’s bill because it did not have enough Republican support to win even 50 votes. Nearly every Senate Democrat voted for a bill that spends $25 billion on a border wall which is not, generally speaking, a policy revered by the “open-borders fringe.” The disagreement between Trump and Senate Democrats is not about the legitimacy of the nation-state, but about whether Dreamers should be allowed to retain the legal right to live in this country, even if rates of legal immigration remain at their current level. Trump does not believe he has the winning side in that debate. So he lies about what the debate actually is.

On Thursday, the White House attacked an immigration bill that would increase funding for border enforcement as “a grievous threat to national security” that would “put many innocent lives at risk.” The ostensible basis for such claims was that merely maintaining the right of American citizens to sponsor the immigration of their foreign siblings and adult children (i.e. “chain migration”) threatens public safety. But there is no empirical basis for that idea. And the notion that Trump’s opposition to mass immigration is rooted in his overwhelming concern for Americans’ public safety is laughable; a president who opposes any and all regulations of the firearms market is not one uniquely concerned with public safety.

Media coverage of the immigration debate tends to suggests that neither side has a claim to an overwhelming, popular mandate. The public agrees with Democrats about some relevant issues, and with Trump on others. But this is only true if the actual point of contention is obscured.

Family-based migration is not a national-security threat. Cutting legal immigration in half is not a policy that any rational person would support for economic reasons. And there is no economic or national-security argument for why amnesty for Dreamers is only justifiable when paired with restrictions to legal immigration.

The administration’s position only gains coherence when one stipulates that Trump’s real concern is the one voiced by senior White House national-security adviser Michael Anton in 2016 — that the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”

Granting legal status to Dreamers, without slashing legal immigration, would not put “innocent lives at risk,” — but it would accelerate the decline of a white majority in the United States, and thereby make it more difficult for the GOP, as currently constituted, to compete in national elections. This is why the White House’s immigration hard-liners pushed for DACA’s original cancellation, and why they oppose any compromise that fails to address the “demographic” issue. Once again, this is not speculation. Senior members of the White House, and leading House conservatives, have expressed their admiration for explicitly, racially discriminatory immigration laws and expressed their concerns about immigration in demographic terms.

And if there is an alternative, good-faith argument for the administration’s stance, why has no one in the White House ever bothered to make it?

The actual immigration debate in Washington today is not about open borders or MS-13; it is about whether prolonging the survival of a white majority in the United States is worth deliberately shrinking the American labor force through drastic cuts to legal immigration — and thus, accepting lower rates of economic growth, and a less sustainable Social Security program. The president believes that it is. Democrats believe that it is not. The White House believes it can coerce Democrats into supporting its position by inflicting suffering on hundreds of thousands of young people.

When Democrats considered shutting down the government to force debate on a Dreamers bill, pollsters asked the public whether they approved of such tactics. They discovered that, even though most voters supported legal status for Dreamers, most Americans believed that Chuck Schumer’s tactics were unjustifiably extreme.

How do you suppose Trump’s position — that Dreamers should be psychologically tortured until Congress agrees to pass sweeping, racially motivated restrictions to legal immigration — would be received, if the mainstream press ever informed the public that this was, in fact, what all this was about?

Trump Knows His Position on Dreamers Is Indefensible