No one has stretched the 24-hour news cycle to its limit like Donald Trump. On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration was killing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, the Obama-era program that gave work permits to some 800,000 immigrants who had been brought into this country illegally as children and that served as a promise that they wouldn’t be deported. Killing DACA outright, however, was too cruel even for the Trump administration, which said the Republican-controlled Congress had a six-month window to codify the policy by legislative means, a cynical move that allowed Trump to claim that he had repealed DACA while passing responsibility for an inhumane and highly unpopular policy to Congress. Then, later that evening, after a flurry of criticism from panicked members of his own worthless party, Trump all but admitted that the six-month challenge was a bluff, tweeting that he would “revisit the issue” if Congress failed to pass any legislation:
These wild swings are a unique product of the Trump era. They come from the fact that this is a president who has no grasp of policy, does not think twice about holding hundreds of thousands of people hostage to his whims, and has no negotiating tactic other than the bombastic threat. The New York Times reported on Tuesday morning that White House aides feared that Trump “might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind.” This is basically what happened.
But Trump’s approach to immigration is simply a clumsy version of what Republicans have been doing for years, showing the extent to which one of America’s two major parties has become a zombie vessel for a strident minority, so incapable at governance that their actions bleed into what can only be called anti-governance. After all, it takes a special kind of pathology to kill a program with the support of 80 percent of Americans, with no pressing need, and so many lives and livelihoods at stake.
The Trump administration’s position is head-splittingly incoherent. In his press conference, Sessions claimed that DACA was an affront to American citizens. He made a number of outlandish claims about the program, including that it “mostly” benefited adults, that it had led to a “surge of minors” streaming across the border, and that it had taken jobs away from “hundreds of thousands of Americans.” This would seem to contradict Trump’s position that all of this should be enshrined in law by Congress in six months.
The most charitable interpretation, which Trump has done nothing to deserve, is that he is trying to do things the right way. As justification for the repeal of DACA, he has taken up the conservative line that the way Barack Obama implemented the program, through an executive order, was unconstitutional. But if that were the case, Trump could have tried implementing DACA legislatively before rescinding Obama’s version, instead of holding a gun to the heads of 800,000 people and a do-nothing Congress. In truth, Republicans have used that argument to prove to their base that they loathe Obama’s amnesty and to throw some chum to the Breitbart crowd, all while maintaining the popular position that those 800,000 people—known as the Dreamers—should be allowed to stay in America, somehow. Trump blew up that delicate balance by actually following those positions to their logical ends.
Another way to put it: Trump has passed the buck to a Republican Party that has blocked immigration reform for decades and that is addicted to passing the buck themselves. Nowhere was that more evident in the response to DACA’s death from prominent Republicans, who made it clear that they would not take the heat for this. Lindsey Graham, who is sponsoring a revised version of the DREAM Act in the Senate with Democrat Dick Durbin, dinged the president for not showing any “heart.”
Marco Rubio turned to scripture to make the same point:
While Trump is often presented as a nativist outlier, his rise is rooted in the GOP’s immigration conundrum, with the party caught between a rabid base and common-sense and broadly popular reform. Republican officials haven’t been as overtly bigoted as Trump—his comments about Mexicans being “rapists” were new—but since George W. Bush the party has been increasingly defined by its opposition to immigration. Mitt Romney, in a characteristically inept attempt at ensuring hardliners that he was one of them, ran for president in 2012 on “self-deportation” and a promise to veto the DREAM Act, the legislative basis for what became DACA.
Twice, in 2007 and 2013, congressional Republicans killed comprehensive immigration reform. In 2010, the DREAM Act died on the floor of the Senate, unable to overcome a Republican filibuster. This refusal to engage legislatively ultimately led to Obama’s decision to use his executive authority to extend protections for people who had entered the country illegally as children. This in turn led, outrageously, to the claims of executive overreach that have dogged DACA ever since.
Some have seen a silver lining in Trump’s ham-fisted approach to the issue, namely that Congress could actually codify DACA in law. Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake both pledged to work on a bipartisan solution. “President Trump’s decision to eliminate DACA is the wrong approach to immigration policy at a time when both sides of the aisle need to come together to reform our broken immigration system and secure the border,” McCain said in a statement. “I strongly believe that children who were illegally brought into this country through no fault of their own should not be forced to return to a country they do not know.”
But even though legal protections for Dreamers are broadly popular, that doesn’t mean that Congress will do anything. “I’m very pessimistic this gets done,” a chief of staff for a Democratic member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus told Vox’s Jeff Stein. “The easiest thing for Congress to do at any time is nothing, and I can’t imagine [House Speaker Paul] Ryan or [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell would risk splitting their caucus by bringing this up.” As they were during the health care reform debacle, Republican leaders are totally unprepared for this moment. They have spent the last three years arguing that DACA is unconstitutional, but also that it shouldn’t be repealed, and by all appearances they wanted to keep things that way.
If Ryan and McConnell were to take on a revised version of the DREAM Act, hardliners would undoubtedly rebel, as they did in 2007 and in 2013. As we saw with the failed attempt to repeal Obamacare, slim GOP majorities are an opportunity for Republican hardliners, who insist on extreme policies that kill the possibility of bipartisanship. It’s possible that Republicans who see this moral and legal crisis for what it is could unite with Democrats and get something done. But that would be an enormous political risk, especially considering the fact that elections are a year away. Given the current gerrymandered state of American electoral maps, many Republicans are more scared of challenges from the right than from the left—if they united with the dreaded Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to provide a pathway to citizenship, the ads would write themselves.
These are the very dynamics that led Sessions to push for DACA’s repeal in the first place, and for Trump to sign on, before getting cold feet. An entire country is being held hostage by a thin slice of the Republican electorate, who answer to no one. As a result, none of us will be safe as long as the Republican Party is in power.