Back in November 2016, the Electoral College, in its wisdom, selected a man to be president who 61 percent of voters felt was unqualified and 63 percent felt lacked the right temperament to be president. The voters were, of course, correct about Donald Trump, and the government shutdown stems from those facts.
Trump set the current crisis in motion last September when he revoked Barack Obama’s executive order that protected DREAMERs — young unauthorized immigrants brought to the US as children — from deportation, but he offered no guidance about what he wanted to happen next, other than for Congress to do … something.
The lack of clarity emboldened immigration hardliners in the GOP caucus while simultaneously raising hopes for a deal among immigration reformers. But Trump’s intervening behavior wound up salting the earth by leaving everyone feeling that he might screw them over at any moment. Consequently, nobody is quite sure exactly who is shutting down the government or what it is the White House is trying to achieve by rejecting a bipartisan proposal that would avert a shutdown.
The country has mostly coped with Trump’s inability to do his job by outsourcing governance to congressional GOP leadership. But congressional Republicans are less unified on immigration than on most issues, and Trump is more invested in immigration than on most issues. Consequently, his actual personal leadership as president of the United States is critical to moving the system forward.
But the mere fact that the circumstances require Trump to act like a real president doesn’t change the fact that he’s a lazy, ill-informed conspiracy theorist prone to tweeting cryptic pronouncements about delicate policy issues based on Fox & Friends segments.
Welcome to 2018.
Mexico didn’t pay for the wall
As a candidate, Donald Trump loudly and frequently promised to “build a wall” on the US-Mexico border and “make Mexico pay” for it.
These ideas never made any sense, but once Trump won the election, turning them into some kind of actual policy imperative became important to the overall Republican Party. Mexico, of course, was not going to pay for the wall, but the White House got behind the conceit that Congress could appropriate funds for it that Trump would assert was some kind of advance on hypothetical future Mexican repayment.
Still, this left the problem of actually getting the money. Congressional appropriations require 60 Senate votes, and many Republicans were lukewarm on the wall concept all along, so last spring, Trump was considering the option of forcing a shutdown to try to get his way.
But the problem remained: how to get Democratic votes for the wall? One natural way to do it would be to give Democrats a big legislative win of their own. But precisely because congressional Republicans were lukewarm on the wall all along, they would revolt at the idea of giving away policy concessions of any real value.
Then came an idea: By canceling the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Trump could generate new leverage for himself and then give Democrats concessions on the DREAMers (leaving Republicans no worse off than they were before) in exchange for some kind of wall money.
Trump changed his mind about his goals
Trump has deeply hawkish instincts on immigration, seemingly driven by his personal and ideological racism, but he’s ill-informed on pretty much all subjects, including immigration.
And the basic problem with a DREAMers-for-wall swap is that the wall is a dumb idea that wouldn’t actually accomplish anything to reduce immigration to the United States. And if legislative protections for DREAMers ended up creating a path to citizenship, it might actually end up increasing immigration, since the new citizens could sponsor visas for relatives.
Consequently, better-informed immigration hawks like White House senior adviser Stephen Miller and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) began working with Chief of Staff John Kelly to avoid the kind of deal that Trump had repeatedly suggested — and even at times explicitly agreed to in general terms.
The problem is that while hawks successfully scuttled a deal — souring Trump on a bipartisan compromise authored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) — they haven’t managed to put forward any plausible ideas of their own.
Immigration hawks aren’t making sense
Instead of negotiating positions, hawks have put forth a comprehensive wish list for entirely transforming the American immigration system. They say they want billions of dollars in new border security funding plus the full RAISE Act vision of cutting legal immigration in half while ending family and diversity visas in favor of an exclusive focus on job offers and educational attainment.
This is what Trump, whether wittingly or unwittingly, means with his various asides about the perils of “lotteries” and “chain migration.”
Everyone is, obviously, entitled to their views about immigration policy. But there’s just no way Democrats are going to agree to these changes as the price to pay for helping the DREAMers. There’s a total disproportion between the scale of the asks and the significance of the DACA issue. To get sweeping changes in the immigration system enacted, conservatives would need to come to the table with some kind of help for the entire population of long-settled undocumented immigrants — precisely the kind of comprehensive immigration reform they’ve been eschewing for years.
The result is that if Democrats blink and cave to Trump on the shutdown question, Trump himself is going to get none of the policy changes he desires — no change to the diversity visas, no change to family visas, and no wall money. In exchange, he’ll get to start deporting DREAMers, but the actual capacity of American immigration courts to carry out deportations is already maxed out.
Losing legal status will harm DREAMers in concrete ways, forcing some out of active-duty military service and others out of legitimate work and educational activities. But people who’ve grown up and spent their whole lives in the United States aren’t going to “self-deport,” and crowding the deportation pipeline with sympathetic DREAMer cases won’t help immigration hawks’ cause.
Maybe Trump doesn’t care and thinks hurting DREAMers is its own reward. But if so, he ought to at least clarify that and help the country move on.
Trump needs to explain what he’s trying to do
The perversity of the current situation is that Trump has always publicly maintained that he wants to do something to help the DREAMers — repeatedly using the word “love” in this context.
That, for obvious reasons, has raised expectations among Democrats and immigration activists that there is a deal to be struck.
If Trump doesn’t actually want a deal, then he can probably prevail on the narrow issue of the government shutdown. Realistically, Democrats from red states with low Latino and Asian populations aren’t going to hold out forever for the sake of a futile effort to help DACA recipients. Indeed, if Trump had signaled implacable opposition months ago, there probably would be no standoff today. Alternatively, if he does want a deal, he needs to start seriously engaging with the process and put some concrete principles on the table.
Instead, by veering from handshake deals with “Chuck and Nancy” to profane rants about “shithole” countries, Trump has confused everyone and brought the political system to the breaking point.