On Tuesday, Donald Trump announced a delayed end to Barack Obama’s executive amnesty, presumably to bring urgency to congressional efforts at immigration reform. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the program this way: “The executive branch through DACA deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions.”
That’s true as far as it goes. The problem is that the legislative branch, dominated by Republicans for quite a while, has refused to do much of anything regarding the millions of people who live and are building their lives in America without any legal right to be here. After venting publicly about Obama, and privately about Trump, Republican lawmakers should blame themselves for the toxic politics of ending DACA. This mess is partly their own making.
Famously, J. Paul Getty said that if you owe the bank one hundred dollars, that’s your problem; if you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem. A similar dynamic is at work with immigration. If you’ve been in the country for a few months or years without legal status, that’s your problem. If you’ve been in the country for two or three decades without legal status, that’s the government’s problem.
Of course it’s an absurdity to deport thirty-something Anglophones who have no memory of their country of origin back to Mexico or Guatemala. And it looks gratuitous to use them as bargaining chips in the immigration debate.
Decades of Republican lies about immigration reform and enforcement have led us to this point. In 1986 restrictionists were told that a limited amnesty would be followed by rigorous enforcement. The amnesty wasn’t as limited as promised, and the enforcement never came. Since that time, every few years, a new “comprehensive” approach to immigration tries to bring Republicans back to the 1980s. Republicans get out on the trail and make campaign commercials saying “Finish the dang fence!” Then they get in office and write up a massive amnesty to go along with a doubling of legal immigration.
Along came Trump, who can beat anyone at a game of promising things he won’t deliver. He very quickly out-promised normal Republicans on immigration reform. Part of his success in convincing restrictionists that he was serious was his willingness to say impolitic or even outright racist things when talking about the issue. His willingness to take some political damage for their cause, they reasoned, was a sign of authenticity. Yet you have to wonder sometimes: In the long run, did the political damage fall on Trump or on the restrictionist cause?
The fact is that Republicans were, by sins of omission and commission, complicit in the buildup of a population of illegal immigrants in America that is well over 10 million strong.
Even though just last week he pardoned the notoriously cruel and corrupt lawman Joe Arpaio, Trump tried to advertise his benevolent motives this week. While he is ending DACA, he said in a written statement, “I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents.” But, he’s not above using their fate as a bargaining chip.
The fact is that Republicans were, by sins of omission and commission, complicit in the buildup of a population of illegal immigrants in America that is well over 10 million strong. Sure, at some point they intended to grant most of them amnesty of some kind. But in the meantime, people who have built their whole lives in a country they have no legal right to be in are vulnerable in so many ways. They are vulnerable to employers who cheat them of wages, to landlords who cheat them of rent, and to criminals who can take advantage of their unwillingness to call the police. And finally, they are vulnerable to sudden shifts in the political wind, as Trump’s rescinding of DACA shows.
A serious country, one that cared about the democratic nature of its society, would never have permitted a population of 800,000 people who fit the “Dreamer” description build up in this country and live so much of their lives here without legal status. That’s why it was such an easy political win for Obama to grant them a simulation of legal status. He was addressing an urgent issue, and doing so from a position of liberality, even if not lawful.
Three decades of negligence is enough. It has created an America that is more socially divided, it has habituated a population of millions of newcomers to the idea that American law turns on a whim, and it has radicalized people who just want to have what Peter Thiel called a normal country.
Trump has thrown down the gauntlet to a Republican caucus in a crude and cynical way. Even so, they should still take up the opportunity to resolve the legal status of the “Dreamers” and everyone else living here without the full protection of the law too.