Let's follow the bouncing ball together. Throughout his entire campaign, President Trump repeatedly emphasized one single memorable policy priority: Building a wall along the southern border. After he was elected, he insisted that he would fulfill that promise, come hell, high water, or government shutdown. But after his administration announced the cancellation of President Obama's legally-dubious executive amnesty for so-called 'DREAMers' (DACA), White House officials explicitly stated that an immigration compromise on that front could be reached without "the wall." Flashback to early September:
White House legislative affairs director Marc Short told reporters on Tuesday that President Trump would not demand that border wall funding is tied to a legislative replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Speaking at a roundtable event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Short said the administration didn’t want to “bind” itself by making a demand that would likely be a nonstarter for many lawmakers. “We’re interested in getting border security and the president has made the commitment to the American people that a barrier is important to that security,” Short said. “Whether or not that is part of a DACA equation, or ... another legislative vehicle, I don’t want to bind us into a construct that would make the conclusion on DACA impossible.”
He wasn't backing off his clearly-stated objective per se, but he wasn't going to demand that it be linked to this particular compromise. Mere weeks later, "the wall" was was reinserted into the conversation as a non-negotiable item: "The wall is suddenly back on the menu -- alongside a slew of additional demands that touch on immigration hot buttons, ranging from sanctuary cities, to refugees, to elements of the RAISE Act. Democratic leaders have already rejected the administration's new posture outright, which they say constitute an unacceptable departure from the tentative 'understanding' they struck in private meetings with the president several weeks ago," I wrote in October. With Congress escaping for the holidays after passing a temporary government funding bill that did not address the issue of formalizing DREAMers' legal status, key elements of the Democratic base were on the brink of open revolt against party leaders. The pressure is now on to strike a bargain and resolve this issue, with the legislative clock ticking down to a March deadline. Ahead of new talks (which reopen today), the White House has dug in on a hardline negotiating position, at least as an opening gambit:
The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc. We must protect our Country at all cost!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 29, 2017
And here's Kellyanne Conway on Fox News this morning, underscoring that "there is no DACA without funding for the wall:"
She went on to mention other components of the president's immigration reform vision, such as ending the controversial visa 'diversity lottery' program, uprooting the current regime of chain migration, and hiring more border patrol agents. We can debate the virtues of shifting to a merit-based immigration system (which is the law elsewhere in the West, including in Canada), but it seems extremely unlikely that a policy change that sweeping has a real chance of being incorporated into a possible DACA deal. Several of the other measures Conway mentioned are more plausible. There appears to be a bipartisan consensus behind scrapping the visa lottery, and as I've written previously, every single Senate Democrat voted in 2013 to roughly double the border patrol force as part of the 'Gang of Eight' reform bill. Also an element of that legislation? The completion of 700 miles of fencing, a point I noted shortly after Conway's segment on America's Newsroom:
I'll reiterate my belief that the contours of a viable agreement are fairly clear: (1) Formalized legal status for DREAMers, plus (2) funding for a physical barrier (Democrats will can it a pre-existing fence agreement, Trump can call it his wall), and more ICE agents and resources. The cancellation of the visa lottery program may also be in the mix. The American people overwhelmingly support anti-deportation protections for DREAMers, who were brought to the United States in violation of our immigration laws as children, through no fault of their own. They also strongly favor enhanced border security -- especially because amnesties, and even rumored amnesties, can act as magnet-style incentives for additional illegal border crossings. The president and Congressional Republicans must recognize that they're not going to get everything they'd like; Democrats aren't going to agree to appropriate money for a new concrete structure along the border, nor are they going to sign on to the RAISE Act. They may also balk at agreeing to certain provisions for which they've already voted in the past, on the logic that they want to retain potential concessions for a more "comprehensive" immigration reform deal in the future (which may be a quixotic aspiration). Similarly, Democrats must recognize that Republicans cannot and will not assent to a "clean" DACA bill that does nothing serious in the way of further securing a border that remains manifestly porous -- and those security measures cannot be cosmetic.
As has been the case since the president's DACA announcement last fall, the broad strokes of a deal on that score are fairly obvious. Members of both parties could vote to make tangible progress toward simultaneously resolving, or at least improving upon the status quo, on a number of immigration-related challenges. The question is whether lawmakers and the president are willing to make concessions that will inflame pockets of activists and purists who view the issue as a zero-sum game of raw identity politics. "Chuck and Nancy" have a real opportunity to come back to their bases and claim victory over protecting the DREAMers without caving on Trump's new border wall. Trump has a real opportunity to touting his "heart" on DACA, while making tangible progress on border security, including a barrier. As far as solutions go, this one isn't particularly difficult to divine. But nothing seems to come easy in Washington these days, does it? Will anyone in DC take 'yes' for an answer? I'll leave you with this reminder from Yuval Levin, who argues that fixing the DACA issue permanently would entail political benefits to the GOP (including neutralizing Democrats' most potent 'heart strings' argument on immigration), in addition to correcting what most people see as a humanitarian injustice.