Former President Barack Obama took the extraordinary step in June 2012 of granting a quasi-legal status and issuing work permits to people who had illegally immigrated to the U.S. through no fault of their own. He did so by executive fiat rather than democratically because public opinion demanded it. It didn't, and neither did voters' representatives in Congress.
Obama's favored group were given the flattering, idealistic, and presumably market-tested label "Dreamers." They were people who had been brought into the country before 2007 as children by parents who overstayed visas or crossed the border illegally.
This week, President Trump has formally announced the expiration date for this constitutionally dubious program, which is known colloquially as "DACA," or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But the program is not to end immediately. In the six months during which it is to be wound down, Trump wants Congress to normalize the program's beneficiaries so that their status is finally made a matter of law.
The media panic over Trump's announcement, as so often in the past eight months, is inappropriate to the facts of the case. First, even the immediate disappearance of DACA (which this isn't) would only restore the situation that existed in May 2012. It would not result in mass deportations of law-abiding immigrants.
Second and more importantly, by keeping the terms of DACA in place as policy for the next six months, Trump has deliberately set the stage for a legislative deal that can finally give DACA recipients the certainty about their situation and their future that they deserve.
In contrast to DACA itself, which tried to circumvent standing immigration law, a new legislative version of DACA would actually be lawful. Congress can now step forward to prevent an injustice against people who did not willingly or knowingly break the law and do not deserve to be treated as lawbreakers.
It is expected that this deal will include money for border enforcement, perhaps for Trump's much-vaunted wall. This, too, would reinforce the fair and bipartisan nature of the deal. It would be a way of showing that the public has both a big heart for "Dreamers" and also values its right to a secure border in a country where the law is respected.
Politicians will continue to disagree on immigration, both between and within the two major political parties. But there are some points within the immigration issue on which vast majorities of members of Congress agree. If someone as hawkish on immigration as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., can agree to an amnesty for Dreamers, then surely at least a few Democrats can agree to measures that will make the border more secure.
Naturally, both parties can and will continue to campaign against each other and maintain their disagreements over immigration. But given this rare point of agreement, the public should expect their representatives to work together toward a common goal.
But Democrats are already signaling that any DACA deal that involves money for enforcement, particularly the wall, is a nonstarter. If they take this approach to the issue they should be shamed for it, for it would be disgraceful. It would be putting their political desire to appear to be resisting Trump ahead of the real-life practical consideration of Dreamers' lives. It cannot plausibly be argued that border walls are per se wrong or unusual. The Washington Examiner recently published a map of dozens of them dotted around the world. And even when there is no physical wall of bricks or steel, there are barriers on most borders that involve countries deciding whom to admit and whom to turn away. A border is, ipso facto, a sort of wall, and there is nothing about it that is repugnant morally, constitutionally, or democratically.
Most Democrats believe genuinely in a gentle and permissive variant of immigration reform. But their party's approach to it is cynical, as bad as those Republicans who decry every compromise as "amnesty," and refuse to address real, practical concerns.
The modern history of Democrats' approach to immigration begins with their decision in 2007 to torpedo President George W. Bush's immigration reform with poison pill amendments. Ever since, Democratic leaders have calculated that there are more votes to be had exploiting unhappiness with the status quo than there are in doing something constructive to reform immigration. (Their thinking on this is thus similar to their approach to race relations). After all, once reform has occurred, what carrots will they have left to dangle before Hispanic voters to maintain their support?
This attitude is perfectly consistent with the Obama administration's cynical approach to the issue. Rather than pursue a lasting legislative remedy when Democrats had a filibuster-proof Senate majority, Obama dangled empty promises of immigration reform leading up to the 2010 election, in a vain effort to limit his party's losses. He told immigrant activist groups that any immigration push would come after the midterm and to stop complaining. In public, he famously exhorted Hispanic voters to "punish [their] enemies" and reward "friends who stand with [them] on issues that are important" to them, referring specifically to immigration.
It's time everyone stepped back and started approaching the issue from a practical perspective.
Trump, who opened his presidential campaign with harsh comments about immigrants, is nonetheless doing his part here by giving Republicans cover in Congress to normalize the status of Dreamers. If Democrats actually care about the issue as they have claimed, they should be jumping to take advantage, make a deal, and enact a legislative solution.