8 September 2017

Trump’s immigration nightmare is a Republican opportunity


Donald Trump’s threat to rescind DACA, Barack Obama’s 2012 Executive Order on the status of illegal immigrants who came to the US as children, confirms his commitment to honouring his campaign promises.

It also confirms his commitment to erasing all traces of the Obama Administration—a commitment that seems more personal than ideological. And the mixture of outrage and anxiety precipitated by Trump’s threat suggests that, in toying with the fates of some 800,000 young people, he might have found the lever that could force Congress to revise America’s immigration laws.

DACA – the Deferred Act of Childhood Arrivals – was not an Act of Congress, but an Executive Order, issued by a president frustrated by Congress’ sustained failure to act. It won’t permanently resolve the status of the 800,000 young people: Obama’s order allowed for the deferral of deportation proceedings for two years, and for subsequent extensions. He declared this to be a temporary fix, and hoped that Congress would legislate a permanent fix.

The order was both humane and sensible, allowing 800,000 young people to live, study and work like legal immigrants. They could even pay taxes while they waited for their status to be secured. It was of a piece with Obama’s nuanced policy on deportation in general. He was called the “Deporter-in-Chief” by immigrants’ rights’ groups, because his administration deported more people than any previous one; some 2.5 million between 2009 and 2015. Yet the numbers belie the discrimination with which the law was applied.

Deportation numbers rose during his presidency because he extended the post-9/11 policies of the second Bush Administration. Those arrested upon entering the country were no longer defined as “voluntary returns” — a process that critics mocked as “catch and release” — but fingerprinted and formally deported.

And the kind of deportations changed. In fiscal year 2015, 91 per cent of the Obama administration’s deportees had a conviction for a federal crime. They were, in Donald Trump’s immortal words, “bad hombres”.

Still, Obama was either naive or foolish when he stated his expectation that Congress would replace the DACA order with legislation. There are around 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. This is seen, by the voters, as a manifold failure of government—a failure to maintain a southern border; a failure to protect the economic position of the low-skilled workers whose wages are depressed by immigrant labour; a failure to secure the prospects of children and young adults who, by no fault of their own, have grown up in a legal limbo; and a failure by presidencies and Congresses of both parties to do something about it. The Democrats play hard ball because of pressure from the labour unions, the Republicans want to retain white votes in the states abutting the Mexican border.

Back in 2001, Richard J Durbin, a Democratic senator from Illinois, proposed the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act (the DREAM Act), to alleviate the position of illegal residents who had come into the country as children. In 2007, when the Democrats controlled both House and Senate, the DREAM Act won the support of a Senate majority, but was blocked by a bipartisan filibuster that included eight Democratic senators. In 2010, with the Democrats still controlling both House and Senate, the House passed the bill, but the Senate voted against it 55-41.

So Obama’s DACA order of June 2012 was a rebuke to his own party as much as to the opposition. The same might be said of Trump’s challenge to Congress over DACA. Now, it is the Republicans who control the Hill. Thus far, the White House and the Congress have failed to find a way to work together. The president is passing the buck back to where it should have stopped in the first place.

If Congress fails yet again to legislate, then it will be party to appalling scenes: the arrest and deportation of minors and young adults. Most are escapees from the drug-wracked provinces of northern Mexico, and war-torn Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Most of them know no other country, and have grown up as Americans.

Moreover, more than 80 per cent of Americans want the status of the DREAMers to be normalised in law. Trump has expressed his “great love” for the DREAMers, and called DACA recipients “incredible kids”. (He has not expressed an opinion on the Republican legislators who, by challenging the constitutionality of DACA in their state courts, have forced him to act.)

When the House passed the DREAM Act in 2007, it was as part of a wider immigration package. Something similar may be in the works now. Lindsey Graham, the powerful Republican senator from South Carolina, has said that “a good marriage would be border security and DREAM Act”. That kind of deal would placate Trump’s voters and the Republican base, while also resolving the status of the 800,000 young people.

It would not, however, fix the immigration system or assist the further 11 million illegal immigrants who have built lives in the United States while Congress has bickered. Border security and the DREAM Act are only two pieces of the immigration policy jigsaw. In both cases, legislation would only correct a failed system. The greater challenge will be to create an immigration system reflecting the needs of the American economy and the desires of its voters.

In 2013, a bipartisan “gang of eight” senators proposed a bill for the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. This bill proposed to grant residency on a “holistic” basis, akin to Canada’s “points-based” system. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed the bill, but the House, now back in Republican hands, allowed it to die.

This year, Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia have revived these ideas for the RAISE Act (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy). In early August, Donald Trump endorsed a points-based immigration system. The RAISE Act, he said, would restore both “our competitive edge” and “the sacred bonds of trust between America and its citizens”.

Apart from the humane imperative and the economic value, comprehensive immigration reform might also be crucial to future elections. Psephologists talk of Hispanics as a single group, but they are not a national or racial unity, merely a linguistic one. Absurdly, Brazilians are lumped in as Hispanics even though they do not speak Spanish; they are really Lusitanians. But Republicans and Democrats have alienated this growing bloc of voters through ethnic and economic nativism. The party that fixes immigration in a compassionate and sensible manner will create new bonds with this segment of the electorate.

Trump may not have had the future of the Republican Party in mind when he forced the DACA issue, but he has given the Republicans an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the electoral map.

Dr Dominic Green is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and teaches Politics at Boston College