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Donald Trump is extremely mad about immigration, and also extremely confused

Decoding Trump’s latest immigration Twitter tantrums.

President Donald Trump says that he no longer wants a “deal” on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
President Donald Trump says that he no longer wants a “deal” on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The president is tweeting again.

On Sunday and Monday mornings, President Donald Trump posted rants about an immigration “caravan” that spiraled into attacks on Democrats and Mexico. Like many things the president tweets, they’re somewhat cryptic unless you’ve been following the news (preferably Fox News) as obsessively as he does.

This is how Trump spent his Easter morning:

On Monday morning, he was at it again:

There is ... a lot going on here. Let’s break it down.

The immigrant “caravan” Trump is tweeting about, explained

Both Trump Twitter tantrums started with references to “Caravans” — which Trump appears to have learned about on Sunday morning from a Fox News segment featuring Brandon Judd, the head of the Border Patrol agents union.

The “caravan” in question is a group of more than 1,000 Central Americans who are heading en masse to the United States through Mexico. For several years now, Central Americans have made up the biggest share of people crossing the US’s southern border — often to seek asylum from gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — and the Mexican government has been cracking down on people traveling through to the United States (partly as a way to retain the goodwill of the US government).

A “caravan” of immigrants traveling from Central America through Mexico, en route to the United States, has sparked the ire of President Trump. But what’s much more common is for Mexico to cooperate with the US.

What distinguishes this group is that they’re traveling out in the open, on the logic that because they’re such a large group, Mexican agents won’t try to stop them. And so far, they’ve been right. BuzzFeed’s Adolfo Flores, who’s traveling with the caravan, has a great portrait of what the journey has been like so far.

According to Flores, some of the migrants in the caravan hope to sneak into the US illegally and evade capture by Border Patrol. But the majority of them plan to present themselves to Border Patrol agents and seek asylum, as hundreds of thousands of Central Americans have done in recent years. This is perfectly legal under US and international law — just presenting yourself for asylum doesn’t mean you’ll get it, but someone who enters the US without papers isn’t violating the law if they present themselves at a port of entry to seek asylum or another humanitarian status. (If they enter between ports of entry and present themselves to Border Patrol, they’ve entered illegally, but they’re still seeking legal status, and the US is legally obligated to give them a chance to prove they qualify for it.)

Many border hawks think Central American migrants are taking advantage of the US asylum system — that they’re being coached in what to tell government officials at the border to show they have a “credible fear” of persecution, and that once released from federal custody, they will abscond into the US rather than showing up in court to pursue their asylum cases.

The Trump administration has started subjecting asylum seekers to harsher treatment (like separating children from their parents in detention), but what it can do is constrained by federal law. So administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, have called on Congress to pass legislation that gives the federal government more authority to detain asylum seekers, deny their claims, and send them back.

It’s not clear how much of this President Trump understands. His Twitter tantrums have made reference to “Border Legislation” and “catch and release,” which could be references to the laws his DHS wants changed. But he also appears to believe that the “caravan” has something to do with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for immigrants who’ve been living in the United States for years — saying that people are coming because they want to “take advantage of” the program’s grants of temporary protection from deportation and work permits.

Trump does not appear to have any idea what DACA is

Trump is getting this totally wrong. No one coming into the US could qualify for DACA now. For one thing, immigrants only qualified for DACA if they’d been in the US as of June 2007. Furthermore, the program stopped accepting new applications in September 2017, when the Trump administration started winding it down (which means that immigrants who have since become eligible, for example by turning 15, haven’t been able to seek protections).

This isn’t the first time that DACA has been blamed for an influx of people into the US — in 2014, when the US was overwhelmed by unaccompanied children and families from Central America, Republicans claimed that immigrants had been lured by the promise of “permisos” (work permits) under DACA: They acknowledged that new entrants wouldn’t qualify for DACA but blamed DACA’s existence for spreading a false rumor that they would. But that theory wasn’t exactly true then, and it definitely isn’t true now.

Whatever the reason, news of the “caravan” appears to have inspired Trump to suddenly lose interest in passing anything to offer more permanent protections for the 690,000 immigrants currently protected under the DACA program, and the hundreds of thousands more who qualify but didn’t apply while the program was fully operational. On Sunday, he declared “NO MORE DACA DEAL!”; on Monday, he declared DACA “dead.”

DACA isn’t officially dead. The Trump administration is facing a lawsuit over its attempt to end the program, and as part of that case, federal courts have ordered the administration to keep allowing currently protected immigrants to renew their two-year work permits. That’s unlikely to change for several more months, and nothing Trump tweets is going to affect it.

But ultimately, it’s likely that the courts will allow the Trump administration to stop granting renewals for current DACA recipients, just as they’ve been allowed to stop granting new work permits. That’s why supporters of DREAMers in Congress have been pushing for months for Congress to pass a bill that would allow DACA recipients to apply for some form of permanent legal status.

For a while, Trump appeared to support something like that. But over the past few months, he has killed multiple DACA “deals” because they don’t satisfy some other portion of his ambitious immigration agenda.

Congress isn’t interested in working on immigration bills that Trump won’t sign, and many of them have lost faith that they can design a bill that Trump will sign — because they don’t trust him to stay consistent about what he wants. That was true before Trump’s tweets. But his official declaration that he no longer wants a DACA “deal” seems to confirm it.

The “nuclear option” in the Senate won’t help Trump pass the bills he likes

The president has come to the conclusion that only way to pass his agenda is for the Senate to get rid of the filibuster, thus allowing bills to pass with 50 votes instead of 60. This is called the “nuclear option.” And on Monday, Trump said it was the only way to get “Border Legislation” passed.

Senate Republicans don’t appear to be terribly enthusiastic about getting rid of the filibuster — they understand that it’s an important tool for the minority party to have, and they understand that no party holds a Senate majority forever. But even if they did decide to get rid of the filibuster, it’s not exactly clear that Trump would be able to get the immigration bills he wants.

While Trump’s tweets referred to “Border Legislation,” the administration’s actual demands to Congress have never stopped at the border — they want to ramp up immigration enforcement in the interior of the US as well, and, most controversially, they want massive cuts to future legal immigration. Legal immigration cuts aren’t just opposed by Democrats — many Republicans think the current legal immigration system is fine, and many more would like to reduce (for example) family-based immigration in order to expand immigration of high-skilled workers.

When the Senate took up Trump’s preferred immigration bill in March, it didn’t just fail to get the 60 votes needed to break the filibuster — it failed to get the 50 votes it would have needed under the “nuclear option.” In fact, 60 senators voted against the bill; only 39 voted for it.

Under the nuclear option, the Senate would have passed one immigration bill this year — a last-minute bipartisan compromise that Trump and the White House were fervently opposed to and threatened to veto.

Trump’s temper tantrum might inspire DHS to intensify its existing crackdown on asylum seekers. But Trump can’t persuade Congress that he’s a reliable negotiating partner on immigration with tweets that demonstrate he’s confused about the policy and willing to change his mind about whether he wants a deal at the drop of a hat.

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