Most “comprehensive” proposals on immigration include at least two components: An amnesty for some number of non-citizens currently living in the country without authorization, and new enforcement mechanisms that are supposed to effectively prevent further unauthorised immigration and therefore eliminate the need for additional such amnesties.
One problem that has prevented the enactment of comprehensive immigration reform for more than a decade is the difficulty of making credible commitments on enforcement in the future. That is, immigration hawks are reasonably sceptical that immigration law will be vigorously enforced in the future, because enforcement would be left in the hands of the same officials who have allowed America to accrue approximately 11 million unauthorised immigrants since the last amnesty in the 1980s.
As a result, President Donald Trump’s election makes the enactment of something like the DREAM Act — a law to grant some form of legal immigration status to some set of unauthorised immigrants who arrived in the United States as children — counterintuitively easier than it would have been under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
They say only Nixon could go to China. Perhaps only Trump can do this limited amnesty and get people to believe him when he says “just this once.”
I wrote on Tuesday that Trump lacked the legislative affairs skills to get a deal done on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But if he lets his new friends Chuck and Nancy take the lead, maybe he can.
Trump is credibly nasty on immigration
The decline in attempted border crossings since Trump took office may have something to do with direct enforcement actions at the border, but a major driver of the decline is that Trump has sent credible signals that have discouraged people from trying to enter the country illegally.
Those signals vary in their desirability and moral defensibility. (Are potential unauthorised immigrants concerned that they will be denied entry, that they will be unable to find work, that they will be abused by immigration agents, or that the United States has become more broadly hostile to foreigners?) But for the politics of DACA/DREAM, the key fact is that the signals, whatever they are, have actually discouraged illegal entry.
Who knows how Trump will feel in a day or a week, but he has telegraphed his reluctance to actually let DACA lapse, he keeps saying he wants Congress to send him something on it, and his recent deal on government funding gives Democrats a strong hand to demand such a deal in December. Should Trump choose to pursue a DACA deal with Democrats, he will be able to counter the usual restrictionist concerns by pointing to his broader stance on immigration.
The talking points would be something like this: You’re afraid an amnesty will encourage new illegal immigration? After all the attacks President Trump has taken from Democrats and the media for being too tough on illegal immigration, how can you be afraid of that? Trump is the king of being tough on immigration and borders. Plus, look at how illegal immigration is already falling.
Trump is setting demands Democrats can meet
Importantly, when asked what he wanted included in a deal for DACA on Wednesday, Trump mentioned only the need to combine it with “good border security”:
“I’d like to see something where we have good border security, and we have a great DACA transaction where everybody is happy and now they don’t have to worry about it anymore because, obviously, as you know, before, it was not a legal deal.”
Democrats could easily come up with something palatable to give Trump that meets these specifications: For example, extra money for border patrol and electronic border security infrastructure, plus an additional physical barrier along some portion of the border that the Republicans could call a “wall” and Democrats could say was a “fence.”
Trump’s putative allies are more interested in other policies that would draw more resistance from Democrats — interior enforcement, and especially reductions in future levels of legal immigration — but these matters do not seem to be what animates the president, who often speaks of immigration and “the border” as though they were synonymous.
Another sign that Trump might actually be willing to sign a DACA deal is that he pointed out on Twitter this week that Obama was never able to get a legislative fix for DACA. Trump loves doing things Obama wasn’t able to do. This would be an opportunity for him to say he had succeeded where his predecessor had failed — and probably the first opportunity where Democrats and the media would actually give him credit for it.
Trump and Chuck and Nancy can roll Paul and Mitch again
You may have seen the hilarious video in which Lou Dobbs attacks Paul Ryan as a “RINO” for his reluctance to make a deal with Democratic congressional leaders, who Dobbs says have recently “calmed themselves” in their approach to the president.
I’m sure this is making Ryan’s head explode. Trump folds to Nancy Pelosi, and it’s Ryan who’s the RINO?
But Trump may have stumbled upon a realisation this week: If the Republican Party is now a cult of personality, and his base is going to like him whatever he does because of who he is, the most plausible path to increased popularity is doing substantive things that Democrats want.
A border-security-for-DACA deal would surely enrage Ann Coulter. But if Trump decides he’s for a DACA deal, he’ll take his television immigration hawk friends like Dobbs right along with him, along with a majority of Republican voters — and that will put a lot of pressure on congressional Republicans to give him what he wants.
A lot of people have talked about Trump’s acquiescence to Democratic demands that the government funding and debt ceiling deal be kept short as a dealmaking blunder, and/or an effort to spite Republicans leaders in Congress.
But it’s also possible the short-term deal will set up a situation in December where Trump and his new friends Chuck and Nancy are able to jam Republican leaders again, together, for a set of agenda items that make all of them look good even if they upset congressional Republicans.
It all seems a little nuts, and I doubt the president has thought it this far through. But if his poll numbers creep upward because of this new display of bipartisan dealmaking, he may be tempted to stick with the pivot. It’s not like he actually cared about public policy to begin with.
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