In a recent column, I argued that we are currently witnessing an attempt to roll back the immigration laws of the 1960s and return to a more restricted immigration policy designed to return immigration to the patterns of the 1920s and after.
Now, with President Trump’s proposal on the table, we begin to get a sense of how this ends. The first—and most popular—Trump proposal is to accord legal status to the Dreamers, people who were illegally brought to the US as children, and who have since become law-abiding, job-holding adults. Surprisingly, Trump goes further and proposes a possibility of these people ultimately (after ten or twelve years) becoming citizens. This is roundly condemned by a good chunk of Trump’s base; for a president who rarely crosses his base, that’s a shock. But overwhelming majorities of the public, including Republicans, favor this move. Certainly Democrats in general should be receptive.
In return for this generosity, Trump demands some major concessions, as reported by The New York Times:
Congress would have to create a $25 billion trust fund to pay for a southern border wall, dramatically increase immigration arrests, speed up deportations, crack down on people who overstay their visas, prevent citizens from bringing their parents to the United States, and end a State Department program designed to encourage migration from underrepresented countries.
These would all be tough for Democrats to swallow. While almost everyone (other than a minority of immigration hardliners) wants to solve the Dreamers’ problem, few Democrats will want to sign on to these other proposals. The leverage Democrats have is the practical need to have 60 votes in the Senate. The question then becomes whether nine or more Senate Democrats will agree to some version of Trump’s proposal, and then whether that version can pass the much more conservative House of Representatives.
Given how many points exist where this could go off the rails, the odds are against success. Fundamentally, anything that can get nine Democratic votes in the Senate would most likely be rejected by the majority of House Republicans. If the House Republican leadership depended on Democratic votes to pass a moderate bill from the Senate, it could succeed. But the House leadership, for years, has been unwilling to proceed on any bill that lacked support of most House Republicans. So it’s probably not going anywhere.
It’s conceivable the Democrats could give Trump a symbolic victory by supporting immigration enforcement and authorizing a wall, but then slow-walk the appropriations process. In return, they save the Dreamers.
Still, the outlines of a sensible bill are not that hard to figure out. Trump’s offer on the Dreamers is obviously the place to start. Then, it is unquestionably within the President’s discretion to decide priorities in enforcing immigration laws. Unauthorized (i.e., illegal) immigration is always against the law, but past administrations have chosen to prioritize deportation of those illegal immigrants who have actually broken other laws. So if Trump wants to increase deportations of illegal immigrants, he is within his rights. It is for Congress to decide how much, if at all, to increase appropriations for that effort. Similarly, whether to plan a wall along the southern border as a part of efforts to stop illegal immigration is for the president to decide, but it is up to Congress to decide how much money to allocate to that project.
So it’s conceivable the Democrats could give Trump a symbolic victory by supporting immigration enforcement and authorizing a wall, but then slow-walk the appropriations process. In return, they save the Dreamers. At most, Trump will only get a few segments of the wall completed in what remains of his term, and his successor could easily stop work on it.
The other provisions Trump proposes (ending so-called “chain migration” and ending a lottery for people from underrepresented countries) are less central to a final settlement, but of symbolic value to many of Trump’s supporters. It is not clear why it is desirable to prohibit the unification of families by allowing legal immigrants and US citizens to sponsor the immigration of relatives such as a grandmother. And the numbers of people who are allowed in under the lottery is so small as to have little impact on the country. So Democrats could probably resist Trump on these points and still get a deal if they leave open the president’s nominal power to enforce the law against illegal immigration, even if they still obstruct increased appropriations for that purpose.
We probably won’t get a deal, even though the outlines of one are visible. In addition to the intricacies of congressional politics, there is always the likelihood that Trump himself, faced with a deal, would impulsively reject it. He is the ultimate loose cannon.
It actually won’t make much difference either way, because the larger forces in the world economy that are driving unauthorized immigration from places like Latin America or the Middle East will still push these people toward our shores. And no matter how high the wall, there are always ways over, under or around it.
It’s all melodrama.