President Donald Trump hinted at his news conference on Thursday that he may yet unveil a surprise on the fate of “Dreamers” — the undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. If it favors Dreamers, it could be a shrewd move.
Trump’s deportation machine revved up this week, and quickly backfired. Immigration agents arrested a woman at a court hearing in El Paso, Texas, where she was seeking a protective order against an abusive boyfriend. It was a textbook illustration of why local law-enforcement officers are wary of cooperating with federal immigration agents. There isn’t an undocumented immigrant in Texas or quite possibly the nation who isn’t newly reluctant to report a crime or claim to have witnessed one. Public safety is compromised.
Trump’s policy is based not on safety but on indiscrimination. President Barack Obama sought to deport criminals. Trump does, too. But his recent executive order essentially redefines every undocumented immigrant as a criminal. It’s open season on any and all undocumented immigrants — even those seeking protective orders. (At least one Dreamer has already been ensnared.)
Illegal immigration is, curiously, a bit like abortion in American politics. Americans are OK with some but not necessarily a lot. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton promised a lot, implying very persuasively, and perhaps counterproductively, that she wasn’t interested in deportations.
“I would not deport children,” Clinton told Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos. “I do not want to deport family members, either, Jorge.”
Trump went far in the opposite direction, of course, demeaning Mexicans, hyping violent crime by immigrants and promising, albeit inconsistently, to administer mass deportations.
While Trump’s anti-immigrant base loves deportations, most Americans don’t. That’s why a humane policy on Dreamers would be very smart politics for Trump.
“The DACA situation is a very difficult thing for me as I love these kids. I love kids,” Trump said at his news conference. “I have kids and grandkids, and I find it very hard doing what the law says exactly to do and, you know, the law is rough.”
Dreamers offer Trump the opportunity to play against type. His comments about them at the news conference were arguably the only unselfish, kind moment of the entire spectacle. Even Trump seems to recognize that there is no legal, moral or political justification for removing people whose sole offense was crossing a border when they were children.
The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that Trump aides are seeking ways to deport Dreamers without Trump having to rescind the Obama executive action that enables them to stay and obtain work permits. “Their hunt suggests that the White House is hesitant to publicly target a well-organized group of immigrants who have prominent public backing, including from President Obama, and to whom Trump has shown sympathy,” the paper reported.
Any notion that the public would fail to connect the dots between deportation and the politician most emphatically identified with supporting deportation is fantasy. Trump will own every hardship of every Dreamer.
Yet Trump could protect the fewer than 800,000 Dreamers who’ve registered for work permits without much political cost among his base. His supporters would still get plenty of deportations — perhaps millions of them. There will be more pictures of weeping mothers and children to prove that he is inflicting the pain that he consistently promised.
Protecting Dreamers would have political benefits. It might sap a bit of energy from pro-immigration protests. And it would modulate the ugly gusher of self-pity and anger that flows daily from the White House. It would signal to the average, inattentive voter without a red cap that Trump possesses potentially useful traits — a human heart and the capacity to think of someone other than himself.
Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.