The prospect of an agreement on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) between Donald Trump and Democratic leaders has caused an avalanche of rumors and no small amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth in certain sectors of the commentariat. While the exact details of such an agreement remain unclear, it seems as though the White House is seriously contemplating a trade of “border security” for enacting DACA (or perhaps an expanded version of it) by statute. In comments earlier today, President Trump insisted on the importance of “massive border security” in exchange for a DACA bill. If, however, the White House insists merely on “border security” in exchange for DACA, it puts Republican members of Congress in a very tough spot.
In fact, a White House call for a fig-leaf DACA deal might almost be the position of maximum political pain for Republicans, in part because it risks starting a war between factions of the GOP base. Party-first loyalists might want to see their representatives fall in line behind their party’s president, but the more populist grassroots seem inclined to revolt at the prospect of a deal. Talk-radio stars such as Laura Ingraham are already voicing their displeasure, and Breitbart and online activists at sites such as Reddit’s r/The_Donald are reacting to a DACA–“border security” deal with molten outrage. Those who follow immigration politics know that “border security” — even “massive border security” — is an age-old smokescreen for mass legalizations (see Eight, Gang of). Promises of “border security” do little to advance the cause of interior enforcement and often prioritize spending money over achieving results. Border security is, of course, a laudable goal, but it must be part of a bigger effort at enforcement and immigration reform.
Thus, in championing a trade of DACA for “border security,” the White House puts Republican members of Congress between a rock and a hard place. Either they stand with the president and risk disappointing much of the base, or they turn against him and risk making the GOP look even more divided. Many Republicans in Congress might find themselves wishing they didn’t have to vote on a DACA “fix” at all (and, according to the Constitution, they don’t).
A fractured GOP base bodes ill for November 2018. In 2014, five points or less separated the winner from the loser in five Senate races; five Senate races were decided by similar margins in 2016. In 2018, those few points could make a difference between Republicans losing the Senate (which is within the realm of possibility) and strengthening their position in it. Meanwhile, according to the Cook Political Report, nine House seats that Republicans hold today are considered toss-ups next year; another 23 only “lean” Republican, and one actually leans Democratic. Democrats need to gain only 24 seats to win the House.
Mobilizing a party’s base is important in presidential elections, too. If the president appears to wobble on his signature issue — immigration — he might feel the reverberations of disappointment at the ballot box. President Trump won six states by less than five points in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona. If the president hopes to be reelected, he needs to keep his core supporters and reach out to swing voters — not pit his voters against each other.
In the short term, allowing Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to set immigration policy affords the president a temporary high. There’s the sizzle of headlines, the cloying praise from his political opponents, the charge of “getting something done.” But there are long-term costs to alienating elements of the base that brought him to power. In our polarized contemporary politics, disappointing even a quarter of a party’s core supporters could have major political implications.
Negotiating a DACA fix does not have to be a political trap for Republicans or the Trump administration.
Negotiating a DACA fix does not have to be a political trap for Republicans or the Trump administration. If the president and his congressional allies insist on trading DACA for something substantive — such as universal E-Verify and/or some provisions of the RAISE Act — they can find a way of advancing a more integrationist immigration system while granting legal status to some of those brought here illegally as young people. A Republican party unified on those points forces Democrats to decide between supporting immigration moderation and opposing legal status for “Dreamers.” That’s a choice that could redound to the advantage of Republicans and those who want sustainable, pro-opportunity immigration reform. But getting to that choice requires that the White House insist on more than a fig leaf of “border security.”
In 2015, the president catapulted to the top of the GOP polls in part by railing against bad-faith dealing on immigration. It invites political dangers for Trump, and for Republicans in Congress, for him to mouth tired Beltway sophistries on the topic now that he’s in office.