One big problem on DACA: Trump does not know what he wants

In announcing the administration’s decision to end DACA in the future, Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the issue as follows:

“The nation must set and enforce a limit on how many immigrants we admit each year and that means all can not be accepted. This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way. It means we are properly enforcing our laws as Congress has passed them.”

One reason neither President Donald Trump nor Republicans in Congress can agree on a plan for what to do instead of DACA is that this statement does not really reflect Trump’s thinking.

As Sessions understands, the strongest arguments for ending DACA are about the rule of law. DACA implements an immigration policy that was never approved by Congress, and it encourages people to violate immigration law by signalling that the executive branch will temporarily protect some subset of unauthorised immigrants’ ability to remain in the US until Congress decides to do so permanently.

It is unclear whether the program is even legal.

But since when has Trump cared about the rule of law, and since when is he eager to submit the presidency to the will of Congress?

For Trump, the message is the policy deliverable

Trump has demonstrated very limited interest in constraints on executive power when he has wanted to use it, and he has raged against courts that have sought to rein him in. He also recently used the pardon power for the purpose of undermining the rule of law, showing that he thinks it’s OK to violate court orders as long as you’re supportive of him and are nasty enough to Mexicans.

And that gets us to the second part of that Sessions statement that breaks with Trump: For Trump, immigration policy is expressly about disrespecting and demeaning certain classes of foreigners and sending the message that they are bad people.

Remember “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists“? For Trump, this message is the policy, much more so than actually governing who may be present in the United States.

All Trump wanted to do was look tough and show he was protecting Americans from threats, including those immigrants he sees as a menace. He’s not here to make complicated policy, and it’s not fun for him to deal with the most sympathetic subset of unauthorised immigrants.

This is why he’s spent far more energy pushing Congress to appropriate money for a wall — a big, physical thing he could stand in front of to show how much he’s doing to keep Mexicans out of the country, even if it wouldn’t actually affect the volume of immigration much — than he has spent pushing for expanded e-Verify or new restrictions on legal immigration, policies that would actually serve the ends Trump’s immigration restrictionist supporters want.

And that’s why he’s punted DACA to Congress, demanding they “do their job” without specifying exactly what that job is.

A low-information president

It’s worth reflecting on the thing Trump said about Mexican immigrants right after his line about them being rapists: “And some, I assume, are good people.”

One reason public polling creates a false sense of public consensus on immigration policy is that most people have a view of immigration that boils down to “let good immigrants in and keep bad immigrants out,” and almost everyone will tell you they support a policy that seems aimed toward this goal.

Often, voters have not grappled with the trade-offs and implementation difficulties that are involved in constructing such a policy. The president is one of those voters.

It’s worth considering the possibility that all the president’s comments on immigration — nasty, demagogic, warm, self-contradictory, demanding a huge Mexican-financed wall with a “big, beautiful door” — have been sincere, in much the same way Trump voters are sincere in those ubiquitous news stories where they say they wanted to see the bad Mexicans deported, not Juan Carlos who manages the Mexican restaurant down the street.

What would one of those voters do if they became president? They might think a big, concrete wall would do a lot to make the country safer. They might turn ICE loose to get “tough.” They probably wouldn’t be eager to start by revoking DACA.

So maybe it’s not that odd that Trump, whose campaign immigration proposal said he would “immediately” terminate DACA because it was illegal, continued to issue new work permits under the program for months.

His administration announced the program’s wind-down only under pressure from state attorneys general, who threatened to sue to end it. He didn’t make the announcement himself, leaving it to Sessions. And the announcement doesn’t actually end the program now — even as the Trump administration takes the position that the program is illegal, it will continue running it for at least six months.

Keep in mind, this is a president who has also repeatedly threatened to end the legally disputed cost-sharing payments that hold Obamacare insurance markets together, but who hasn’t actually done so.

Who knows whether Trump will actually follow through on his threat to end the program in six months in the likely event Congress has not acted to replace it.

Trump lacks the capacity to guide Congress to a deal

Trump would probably be happy to take a deal that trades codification of DACA for wall funding. But Trump’s restrictionist allies won’t allow this because it would be a huge substantive win for pro-immigration forces — a wall is an expensive piece of symbolism, while DACA-style legislation would create a large number of new, legal immigrants.

They will surely make demands along the lines of what Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has called for: tying DACA implementation to the broader immigration restrictionist agenda.

Pro-immigration Democrats would be loath enough to make a deal with Trump even if they substantively got the better end of the deal. They definitely won’t make a deal that actually gives restrictionists what they want — increases in interior enforcement, reductions in future legal immigration — but does not include a broader amnesty of unauthorised immigrants.

Congress has been trying and failing to reach a deal on immigration for more than a decade, through several changes of party control and even at times when the chambers were much more functional than they are today. This Congress is not going to do anything complicated and controversial without presidential leadership, and Trump is not equipped to provide that.

So in six months, we’ll likely be where we are today: With no deal on immigration, with a paralysed Congress, and with a president who is prepared to use DACA recipients as a bargaining chip yet has no idea how to bargain.

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