On Jan. 11, a bipartisan group of senators announced a tentative agreement on the fates of the more than 800,000 undocumented immigrants granted protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It provided them a path to citizenship — though they would have to wait a full decade in order to receive it — and allocated almost $3 billion for border security.
Those senators, including Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, are now moving to grow support for that agreement.
But, as the chorus of disapproval coming from both sides of the political spectrum made it impossible to miss, in a meeting in the Oval Office with senate leaders, President Donald Trump complained — the same day the agreement was announced — about immigrants from “shithole countries” coming to the United States.
By employing such vulgarity, then falsely claiming he hadn’t done so, Trump drew the ire of both liberals and conservatives and sparked a firestorm of rebuke from key international allies. By later dissing the deal on Twitter, Trump further compounded the damage and thrust the promising agreement into serious jeopardy.
It didn’t need to be this way. Up until the moment he uttered the word “shithole,” Trump looked poised to usher in a permanent solution for the Dreamers, as they’ve come to be known, who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children. All Trump had to do was exercise enough restraint to not cripple the deal, and he could have, for the first time in his presidency, brought home a victory that satisfied both Republicans and Democrats.
But he didn’t, and it will cost him.
Trump’s use of language which was at best callow and at worst overtly racist has hamstrung the deal, leading to renewed fears of a government shutdown and the possibility of even more delays for DACA recipients as the March 5 deadline for the policy draws closer. A federal judge’s ruling that the Trump administration must allow Dreamers to continue applying for deferred status may have bought them more time, but it’s ultimately in the hands of Congress and the president not to let them down.
Ending the DACA program, the Obama-era policy that granted children brought to the country illegally before age 16 a reprieve from the threat of deportation, was one of Trump’s core campaign promises.
In 2015, when he first announced his candidacy for president, Trump vowed to “immediately” halt what he called “President Obama’s illegal executive order on immigration,” then repeated, for effect, the principal feature of that promise — “immediately.”
Trump stuck to his guns on DACA throughout the tumultuous year of his campaign. But, finding the pressures of leading far different from those of running for election, his position began to shift in November 2016. After his surprise victory, then president-elect Trump told TIME Magazine he would be willing as president to “work something out” on DACA. Once in office, now-President Trump reassured the American people of what he described as his “big heart,” saying Dreamers “shouldn’t be very worried.”
Then, Sept. 5, Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced the administration would end DACA 180 days later on March 5, 2018.
Democrats were outraged. The Dreamers were, yet again, uncertain whether they’d be allowed to live in the country they call home. More than 86 percent of Americans thought they should be, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll a few weeks after the announcement.
Why, if he cared so deeply for the DACA recipients, did Trump put an expiration date on their already questionable legal status?
Some argued he acted out of fidelity to legal order — DACA may or may not have been an unconstitutional overreach of presidential authority — while others said it was just plain racist.
Whatever his reasoning, by putting the fates of the Dreamers in question, with the final decision about their fate seemingly in his hands, Trump instantly created powerful leverage with which to push his policy of strict immigration reform, embodied by his long-promised “big, beautiful wall.”
It was a prime bargaining chip. By ending DACA with a six-month delay, Trump was able to fulfill a campaign promise without actually intending to deport anyone, looking tough on immigration to his base while being able to eventually take credit for the solution he would force Congress to swiftly pass.
Just before Sessions announced DACA’s demise, Trump tweeted: “Congress, get ready to do your job – DACA!” — a not-so-subtle signal that he fully expected Congress to finish what he had started. And they have to. The vast majority of their constituents, including two-thirds of Republicans, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, want a path to legal status for the Dreamers, and will surely express that desire in the voting booth in November if the Republican-controlled Congress fails to act.
With those more than 800,000 people thrown into limbo, Trump and the GOP established their bargaining position: Any DACA deal must include funding for the wall — which could cost as much as $21.6 billion — or, at the very least, funding for enhanced border security and immigration reforms.
For a while, it seemed like it would work.
And he couldn’t have chosen a worse time to do it. More Americans have disapproved of Trump’s performance than have approved since roughly two weeks after his inauguration — around the time his executive order suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries was signed and swiftly blocked by the courts, and the Russia investigation began to pick up steam. Trump’s approval rating still remains among the lowest for modern presidents.
After taking hits all year with ongoing allegations of collusion with Russia, the repeated failure of his immigration ban, the ill-fated attempt to repeal Obamacare along with a litany of faux pas, Trump could have added saving the Dreamers to his list of year one accomplishments. Along with the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and more than 70 other judicial nominations, the passage of a tax reform bill which included the repeal of Obamacare’s controversial individual mandate, cutting regulations and an uncommonly healthy economy, ushering in a bipartisan DACA fix would have given the Trump administration another strong foothold in a rocky first year.
But that doesn’t matter anymore. By drawing such fierce rebuke, especially after a controversial book recently brought his sanity into sustained question, the president now finds himself in a political catch-22. If Congress does manage to pass its solution to the Dreamer question, Trump can no longer convincingly take credit for it as he had planned to — his credibility on the issue now destroyed. If they fail to do so — an outcome that seems more likely by the day, especially because Trump has now denounced the deal — the blame will fall squarely on his shoulders.
There’s no doubt Trump’s unscripted, shoot-from-the-hip strategy seems less robotic than other politicians — creatures of “the swamp” he swore to drain — and keeps his opponents entirely unsure of his next move. But it’s a double-edged sword, and while it made him appealing to middle American voters, this debacle has shown that it can also have unintended consequences and that political outsiderdom isn’t always an advantage.
Now, as a consequence of his capriciousness, Trump seems to be charging ahead with what appears to be the only workable solution left to him: To try to scuttle the deal and blame the Democrats. In one of his usual early-morning tweetstorms, Trump doubled down, twice, on his assertion that the Democrats don’t really care about DACA, and that it will be their fault if no solution is reached.
It’s a risky solution with immense political and human stakes. If a DACA fix is passed, Trump risks looking incompetent and ineffectual. If it isn’t, it’s critical to remember, almost one million people could be deported to countries that aren’t theirs and Trump will have no choice but to continue his flimsy aspersions of the party that has made DACA its cause.