The Art of the Immigration Deal
Just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only Trump can work with Democrats on immigration.
President Donald Trump brought some focus to the immigration debate during a meeting Tuesday with key lawmakers (though notably absent were party leaders) over a fix to the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and other immigration reforms. Indeed, Trump did something far different from meetings Barack “I Won” Obama held with Republicans — he listened to both Republicans and Democrats and expressed the desire to reach a deal on how to both secure the border and the interior, as well as figure out how to handle the 800,000 or so young adults brought here by their parents — the so-called Dreamers.
Recognizing the chasm that exists between the parties on immigration, Trump suggested a willingness to take on proposals in stages, focusing first on DACA and border security in what he called a “bill of love.” Despite his change in tone from mocking Jeb Bush for similar sentiments on the campaign trail, Trump has been pretty consistent on the substance of what he’s doing on the issue.
But decipher these remarks from the meeting: “I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with. I am very much reliant on the people in this room. I know most of the people on both sides, I have a lot of respect for the people on both sides, and what I approve is going to be very much reliant on what the people in this room come to me with. I have great confidence. If they come to me with things that I’m not in love with, I’m going to do it, because I respect them.”
The overall picture is far clearer than that, as we’ll see.
The meeting took place against the backdrop of a looming government shutdown, which will happen on Jan. 19 unless lawmakers can agree on a spending package to avert the first fiscal catastrophe of 2018. It also happened just as U.S. District Judge William Alsup, a Bill Clinton nominee operating in the sanctuary city of San Francisco, inside the sanctuary state of California, temporarily blocked Trump’s move to end the DACA program.
Initially, Democrats demanded that a DACA fix be part of any spending agreement that is reached to avert a shutdown. This should come as no surprise, as holding government solvency hostage in exchange for other legislative tidbits is a specialty among Democrats. Trump, following California Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s lead, suggested he would agree to a clean DACA fix, albeit adding that border security must be part of that clean deal, with a more comprehensive bill to come later.
As Trump put it during the meeting, “To me, a clean bill is a bill of DACA, we take care of them, and we also take care of security.” He also tweeted, “As I made very clear today, our country needs the security of the Wall on the Southern Border, which must be part of any DACA approval.”
This means funding the border wall, one of the most potent symbols of the Trump divide — it rallies his supporters and drives his critics mad. Never mind that some of the very Democrats who today oppose the wall voted to fund a border wall in 2006. Never mind that Republican and Democrat presidents and legislators have called for a stronger border for decades. Democrats can no longer stand the idea of such a measure now for two reasons. One, deep down, they know that Trump is not just paying lip service to the idea; he means to make it happen. And two, their real immigration strategy is an electoral gambit for votes. Don’t take our word for it — take their own words.
DACA will expire March 5, thanks to a Trump executive order from 2017 ending the unconstitutional Obama-era program. Trump has indicated all along that he is open to a legislative fix to DACA, which is the way any such program should have come about in the first place. At this point, he may get that legislative fix and funding for the border wall along with it. Comprehensive measures to fix the visa lottery program and switch to merit-based immigration can come later.
What is taking place here is an elaborate chess game. Trump recognizes that his base is skeptical of any immigration deal with Democrats. And with good reason. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, put together by Democrats, led to decades of chain migration and a massive wave of illegal immigrants. Likewise, the 1986 immigration reform law led to millions more illegal immigrants after Democrats flat out broke a deal with President Ronald Reagan to increase border security in exchange for amnesty for the then-three million-plus illegals residing in the country.
Democrats have proven time and again they cannot be trusted on this (any?) issue. But in a deeply divided Washington, Trump likely can’t get a border wall or any other reforms without them. So, he must cut a deal.
If Trump is going to deal with slippery Democrats, he has to make sure Republicans have his back. This means proving his bona fides on immigration. Last year’s executive orders repealing DACA, instilling a ban on immigrants from known terrorist countries, Trump’s most recent action to refuse renewing Temporary Protected Status to 200,000 people from El Salvador who have been here since 2001, and a handful of other enforcement priorities all demonstrate the president’s willingness to get tough on immigration. And it also demonstrates his respect for the Rule of Law, which means a lot to Republicans, even if Democrats can’t really describe what that concept means.
It’s working, too. “The final border apprehension numbers of 2017, specifically at the southern border, undeniably prove the effectiveness of President Trump’s commitment to securing our borders,” said Tyler Houlton, the acting press secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “This administration has overseen a 40 percent decrease in 2017 compared with the last year of Obama’s presidency. U.S. Border Patrol apprehensions in Fiscal Year 2017 were at the lowest level in 45 years.”
Just as Richard Nixon was the only person who could conceivably go to China, perhaps Trump is the only person who can work with Democrats on immigration.