It’s time to face facts: Donald Trump is failing on his signature issue. There is a humanitarian crisis at the southern border. The number of people crossing is surging to numbers not seen in a decade. In February, 76,103 undocumented immigrants either presented themselves at ports of entry or were apprehended at the border. That was the largest number since February 2007 — until March, when border officials stopped 103,000 undocumented immigrants crossing the border.
Making matters far worse, huge numbers of those crossing are families, including children. Roughly half the immigrants detained in February and March were traveling as part of a family unit. Kids are being hauled on dangerous trips, they’re often subject to terrible abuse, and they face an uncertain future when they arrive in the U.S.
Such a situation would be an immense political challenge for any president, but let’s not forget that Trump campaigned with an obsessive, laser-like focus on immigration — especially immigration from the south. This was the heart of his announcement speech. It was the heart of his campaign rallies. It was the heart of his (failed) effort to keep the House in 2018. And here we are in 2019, with no wall, surging illegal immigration at the border, and chaos in the Department of Homeland Security.
Even worse, in place of a coherent and effective immigration agenda, the Trump administration has given us quite a bit of inflammatory, ineffective, and incompetent flailing around. The aborted family-separation policy was one of the worst forms of moral and political malpractice yet seen in the modern immigration debate. Threats to close the border revealed only Trump’s disregard for the vital economic importance of trade with Mexico. And his consistent efforts to resort to unilateral “pen and phone” actions — such as attempting to revise asylum statutes via regulation or build (parts) of the wall by executive fiat — are doomed to legal failure or (in the latter case) to marginal success.
The bottom line is that the only permanent solutions to the crisis at the border are legislative. America’s immigration and border-enforcement regime is established by Congress. It can only be reformed by Congress. That means deal-making. That means compromise. And, let’s be honest, Trump has been a terrible deal-maker since the moment he landed in the Oval Office.
While many of his most loyal supporters see his tweets, his threats, and his bluster as “fighting,” by now (and especially after the Democratic victories in last year’s midterms) his critics see the same behavior and use it as motivation. They’re not alarmed by his bluster; they’re amused. They mock him. His threats and tweets fuel the opposition and undermine his ability to make the deals he needs to make. He’s testing the political utility of the opposite of Teddy’ Roosevelt’s admonition, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” tweeting loudly and often carrying no real stick at all.
In 2018, Trump could’ve had a deal for far, far more wall money than his subsequent emergency declaration will yield even if it survives the various legal challenges it now faces. He let that deal slip away. No one thinks a wall is the cure-all for our immigration crisis, but it would be a start, providing a permanent degree of protection and channeling more immigrants through safe, controlled ports of entry.
The choice now is stark: more flailing, more inflammatory tweeting, and more chaos at DHS, or a real effort to formulate a sensible, coherent, and reasonable legislative proposal and sell it to Congress and the public. I mentioned earlier that Trump has been a terrible deal-maker. There is one exception: the First Step Act. Trump was instrumental in pushing through prison reform in part because that aspect of his presidency has been largely characterized by compassion and reason. Even in hyper-polarized times, there was room for an agreement to at least begin to deal with a recognized political and cultural challenge.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that immigration compromises are as attainable as criminal-justice reform — there’s too much toxic water under the bridge for that — but if we’ve learned anything from the past three years, we’ve learned that Trump’s base isn’t going anywhere. Ann Coulter could rage, Stephen Miller could quit, and it wouldn’t matter: If Trump sells an immigration deal, the most loyal among his base will stand and cheer.
We don’t know if any reasonable legislative compromise is attainable. Perhaps the polarization is too complete, and we’ll have to muddle through until a political reset in 2020. But we do know what won’t ease the crisis on the southern border: executive actions, presidential tweets, and endless turnover at the top of DHS. The Trump strategy of the past two years has been an objective failure. It’s time for a change of tack. It’s time to seek compromise.