It’s not every day we get to watch an American president think through his policy positions in real time on live television, much less on a third-rail subject like immigration. But that’s what happened Tuesday when we had the rarest of chances to witness President Trump engage members of Congress in a discussion about border security and the immigration program known as DACA.
Predictably, this extraordinary bit of theater elicited hyperventilation on the cable news-and-gab channels. The meeting held a fly-on-the-wall fascination heightened by growing questions about the president’s mental fitness for office. Some analysts said it was a stunt to quiet the questions.
But there was news, too. The president wants $18 billion in funding for his vision of a wall along the southern border. If there’s no wall, he said, there’s no deal to extend legal protections to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who entered the country illegally when they were children.
With that line in the sand, the fate of these young people known as “dreamers” and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shields them hang in the balance.
Wait a minute — wasn’t Mexico supposed to pay for the border wall?
I jest, but you’ll remember candidate Trump promised his rapturous followers that “we will build a big, beautiful wall, and Mexico will pay for it.” His supporters bought the preposterous signature line, though Trump knew it was pure fiction.
Mexico was never going to pay. Democrats and many Republicans don’t want U.S. taxpayers to pay, either, because they think a wall is a bad idea and a prohibitively expensive one at that. On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was among the latest to express reservation, saying, “We don’t have the money to spend.”
Still, Trump persists, even as other estimates put the cost for building and maintaining a wall at $21 billion and higher.
Most Americans oppose a border wall, according to national surveys.
Critics, and there are many, say it’s an idea that simply won’t work — not on its own. It won’t do anything, for example, to stop a growing percentage of people who enter the country legally, then overstay their visas, thus joining the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. And even hard-line border security proponents say border barriers must be combined with more technology and more boots on the ground to be effective.
Meanwhile, dreamers are in a messy state of limbo. With the Obama-era program set to expire March 5, some have already begun losing their protections and are exposed to deportation. Adding to their uncertainty, on Wednesday, a federal injunction temporarily blocked administration plans to rescind work permits for them under DACA. Meanwhile, a government shutdown loomed if factions in both parties couldn’t agree on DACA’s fate.
An estimated 790,000 dreamers hold DACA status; about 124,000 live in Texas, according to the Pew Research Center.
Remember, it was the Trump administration that announced decided last September to phase out DACA, under pressure from Republican opponents who deemed it unconstitutional. Trump left it up to Congress to cut a new deal to protect dreamers. Now, he stands in the way of an agreement if lawmakers don’t meet his border wall condition.
Dreamers have grown up as Americans and work diligently to demonstrate they belong here. Most don’t know any other home — and they shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ decisions to bring them here. They are high achievers – more than 90 percent are working or in school, according to one survey – and they contribute to the economy.
Passing legislation to offer dreamers a path to citizenship would lead to an increase in Texas of $54 million in state and local revenue, according to data from a Center for Public Policy and Priorities study.
Americans overwhelmingly support keeping dreamers in the U.S., according to a national Marist poll in December. Holding their lives hostage to politics isn’t fair or compassionate.
Trump also signaled that he would be willing to negotiate sweeping immigration reforms with the potential to grant millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.
In Republican camps, giving undocumented immigrants a means to become citizens is branded a word that typically shuts down any meaningful discussion of immigration reform: amnesty, as in amnesty for people who break the law. In signing off on it, Trump would undoubtedly upset his hard-line supporters who helped him win the presidency with his vow to crack down on illegal immigration.
“I’ll take the heat,” he told lawmakers.
But there’s one big catch — one you’ve probably guessed: There’s no deal for a path to citizenship without a border wall. Trump’s border wall. A wall that Mexico won’t pay for, but Americans will if the president gets his way.
Castillo is the editorial page editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org