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Don’t get too excited about a Trump immigration “compromise”

He may want to succeed on comprehensive reform where Bush and Obama failed — but there’s a reason they couldn’t do it.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY)
J. Scott Applewhite / AFP via Getty

Donald Trump would like a lot of things to happen.

Donald Trump would like peace in the Middle East. Donald Trump would like Mexico to pay for the wall. Donald Trump would like the press to be nicer to him.

So when Donald Trump says, as he did to Congress Tuesday night, “I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible. ... I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades,” it shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a promise to labor on a comprehensive reform bill. It should be taken as something Trump would like to see happen — to paraphrase Trump himself, a dream within his heart.

If Trump seriously does want to spend political capital on a bill that would legalize many of the unauthorized immigrants already in the US, or even allow them to eventually become citizens — something he didn’t mention in Tuesday night’s speech but did reportedly tell press at a private lunch on Tuesday — it would be one of the greatest coups of modern American politics. The man who won the presidency as an immigration hawk above all would become the president who succeeded in passing an “amnesty” where his two predecessors had failed.

If Trump were willing to work for such a prize, it’s totally plausible he could achieve it. The question is whether he’s willing to work for it — or desires it at all.

The people Trump could legalize are the exact same people he signed an executive order targeting

The first indication that Trump is serious about passing immigration reform would be for him to sketch out what sort of compromise he’d actually support. And on Tuesday night, he didn’t do that. He explained that he wanted to replace the current immigration system with something more “merit-based,” but beyond that, he just called for Democrats and Republicans to come together, “guided by the well-being of American citizens,” and work something out.

But earlier Tuesday, at an on-background lunch with TV news anchors, Trump — or rather, a “senior administration official” who literally could only have been Trump — sketched out an idea for such a compromise. He might support a plan that allowed DREAMers (unauthorized young adults who are currently protected from deportation under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) to eventually become US citizens. He might support a plan that allowed other unauthorized immigrants who hadn’t committed “serious crimes” to stay in the country legally, even though they wouldn’t be allowed to become citizens down the road.

This sounds, on the face of it, like a reasonable compromise: Maybe Democrats would be willing to cave on citizenship for all unauthorized immigrants if they thought this was the only way to keep them from being deported; maybe Republicans would be willing to grant an “amnesty” if they were confident that immigration laws would be enforced in future.

It’s also the opposite of the actual policies Trump has put in place in his first month as president.

Before Trump came into office, unauthorized immigrants who hadn’t committed serious crimes weren’t terribly likely to get deported. Trump changed that. He signed an executive order that turned any immigrant who’d ever done anything criminal (which includes any unauthorized immigrant who’s ever driven without a license or used fake documents to get a job) into a “deportation priority” for federal immigration agents. His administration allowed agents to pick up any unauthorized immigrant they encountered during a raid as a “collateral arrest” — explicitly allowing them to sweep up immigrants without criminal records.

Trump and his administration routinely brag about these moves; they crow that they’ve taken “the handcuffs off” immigration agents. They have freed agents to grab the precise immigrants that Trump is now floating the idea of legalizing.

Stepped-up deportations don’t preclude future reform. Just ask Obama.

As policy, this seems counterproductive. But politically, it’s extremely familiar: It’s more or less what Obama did for the first two years of his presidency.

The Obama administration came into office believing that it could pass comprehensive immigration reform if administration officials could just reassure Republicans they could be trusted to enforce immigration law. So they went ahead with the enforcement part — deporting 400,000 immigrants a year, many of whom had committed minor offenses or no crimes at all — and waited for Republicans to come to the table on reform.

The Senate passed a reform bill, but House Republicans never came to the table. Immigration hard-liners never believed Obama was enforcing immigration law, even when he was enforcing it harder than any president (arguably) ever had. He just didn’t have the political capital, and he couldn’t earn it.

Trump, on the other hand, has no need to earn credibility with voters who are hawkish on unauthorized immigrants. He has won their trust since the first days of his campaign. They are many of his core supporters. If he’s able to make a reform look tough on “bad hombres,” it’s totally possible they’d come along.

And Republican elected officials who are more open to immigration reform to begin with, but fear the wrath of their conservative constituents, would have all the political cover in the world if they were simply going along with President Trump.

It would be a move that would inevitably draw connections to “Nixon in China” — Richard Nixon’s ability, as a Cold War hawk, to forge a relationship with communist China that his liberal predecessors wouldn’t have been able to. But it would more properly be understood as Donald Trump succeeding where Barack Obama had failed.

An immigration “compromise” would force Trump to push aside the most powerful people in his White House

It’s possible that this is what appeals to Trump about an immigration compromise. Much like peace in the Middle East, it’s something presidents have tried and failed to do in the past, so if he could succeed with it, his fame would be assured forevermore.

There’s just one small problem: Past presidents haven’t succeeded at achieving peace in the Middle East, or winning a compromise on immigration reform, because they are hard issues that people have been unable to solve even if they tried very hard. And it’s not at all clear that President Trump is willing to work hard to make his dreams come true.

It’s not exactly like Trump has managed to bend Congress to his will so far. His stated legislative priority — repealing and replacing Obamacare — is floundering so badly that his administration wasn’t willing to endorse any of the existing proposals in Tuesday’s speech (they didn’t want to back a loser). Tax reform is on shaky ground at best. Even filling political appointments has been a slow process (less because Congress is holding up the process than because the White House isn’t producing nominees).

These factors would make any proposal tricky, even the president’s hoped-for infrastructure package. But on immigration, Trump wouldn’t just have to fight Congress and win — he’d have to fight his own White House.

The two most influential officials in the administration right now, when it comes to immigration policy, are chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller. They’re the ones who (according to all available accounts) wrote the executive order that broadens deportation “priorities” to target unauthorized immigrants who haven’t committed serious crimes, as well as Trump’s other executive orders on immigration. They’re the ones pushing for a broader crackdown on legal immigration. And they really, really don’t believe in amnesty — or compromise.

Simply expressing a dream of an immigration compromise isn’t going to spur members of Congress to get to work on a broad bipartisan bill. Actual pressure — White House visits, policy outlines, the sort of things presidents do when they are leaning on Congress to pass their agendas — might. But to do that, Trump would have to go around Bannon and Miller.

Right now, it’s not even clear that he could.

President Trump, you see, doesn’t appear to be capable of talking honestly about the reality of his immigration policy. He asserts that the US didn’t even have a border before his inauguration, in defiance of anything resembling reality. He insists that he’s only getting out serious criminals and “bad hombres,” despite the fact that his executive order ended a period where immigration agents were instructed to do just that.

The bigger the disconnect between what Trump is saying and what his administration is doing, the harder it is to believe that he’s really the one in the driver’s seat when it comes to immigration policy. And that makes it all the more unlikely that he’ll be able to offer anything more to the push for a “compromise” than a few encouraging words.