The Corner

Trump’s Immigration Two-Step

Some Leniency on Dreamers, Crackdown on Criminals

California’s legislators are threatening to turn themselves into a “sanctuary state” that will refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. President-elect Donald Trump is being castigated as a racist xenophobe.  But, for once, The Donald is keeping his cool. 

 Last week, he told Time magazine he is “going to work something out” for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.”  These are the so-called “Dreamers,” who President Obama used a sweeping 2014 executive order to protect from any law enforcement action. It’s implementation has since been blocked in federal court, leaving some one million people in limbo.

Trump still believes the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order (DACA) is an unconstitutional expansion of presidential authority.  But he now has some sympathy for the position they’re in: “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

While he is unlikely to keep the specifics of the DACA order, which grants a two-year renewable work permit to nearly one million recipients while blocking any deportation actions against them unless a criminal record is involved, Trump says his administration’ solution will “make people happy and proud.”

Trump believes he has some leeway to be flexible on the Dreamers because he plans a real crackdown on people who are in this country illegally and have a criminal record. The president-elect told CBS’s “60 Minutes” in November that his first move on immigration will be to deport two million to three million criminal undocumented immigrants — people he calls “bad hombres.”

Trump’s heated campaign rhetoric over the last 18 months led many people to believe he really did want to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. But his attention-grabbing soundbites were belied by his previous positions on the subject. Back in 2012, when he was mulling over a run for president, he told an interviewer he was “probably down the middle” on immigration issues.  “You have people in this country for 20 years, they’ve done a great job, they’ve done wonderfully, they’ve gone to school, they’ve gotten good marks, they’re productive – now we’re supposed to send them out of the country. I don’t believe in that.” He also criticized GOP nominee Mitt Romney for his”fanatical” talk about self-deportation of immigrants, saying that stance cost him with Hispanic voters. Ironically, Trump won a higher percentage of Hispanic votes in the 2016 election than Romney had.

The genius of Trump on the campaign trail was that he sent two different messages on immigration.  On the one hand, he called for a border wall and bizarrely claimed he would get Mexico to pay for it. On the other hand, Trump said he would build a “big beautiful door” in the wall to let in legal immigrants. He reiterated that stand last week, when he told a rally that he expected the wall would let in both legal immigrants and guest workers.

With his acknowledgement that he expected to reach an accommodation with Dreamer children in the U.S., Donald Trump has once again proven himself a master of the political two-step.  During the campaign, he was adept at throwing red meat to campaign crowds who had concerns about the loss of control at the border – a real issue. But having announced he is appointing retired General John Kelley to head the Department of Homeland Security’s border operations, he now feels comfortable to take a more conciliatory tone with the politically sympathetic Dreamer community.

Some would label this hypocrisy, pointing to the fact that Trump just won approval to hire 64 foreign workers through the federal government’s H-2B visa program to work at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. But for Trump it’s all smart politics.  With a Rule of Law in place to restrict unwanted or criminally minded immigrants, Trump feels free to be flexible and even generous with other immigrants.  

The end result will satisfy neither his most fanatical supporters or critics, but it is certainly likely to work better than the chaotic status quo on immigration.

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