After all of President Donald Trump’s bluster about his “great love” for “dreamers,” brought to this country as children through no fault of their own, it turns out he’s content to use them as leverage in a high-stakes game of political horse-trading. Trump seems willing to strip them of jobs, security and homes unless Democrats buckle on a range of Republican immigration priorities, including an even longer-standing object of the president’s ardor: a beautiful border wall.
In September, it was Trump who terminated the Obama-era protection for dreamers that shielded them from deportation while granting them work permits if they had clean records and met certain other requirements. At the time, he gave Congress six months to fashion a legislative fix; failing that, the president suggested he would act unilaterally to ensure their protection.
It soon became apparent that Trump’s passion for his base, whose anti-immigrant fervor he stoked in the course of the 2016 campaign, exceeded his feelings for the dreamers. Prodded by White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, a nativist hard-liner, Trump has made clear that his price for helping the dreamers is steep—not just the wall and additional funding for border securitybut also an overhaul of the immigration system to end family-based migration and the visa lottery, whose beneficiaries are mainly from developing nations.
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That agenda is anathema to Democrats and would harm the country. It’s worth debating the merits of expanding visa quotas to allow more high-skilled and highly educated immigrants, but that’s not what the White House is pressing for. Rather, Trump is more interested in tearing down programs than building new ones. And, as he made clear, he now regards dreamers as a means to that end. Democrats, he said in a tweet last week, are on notice that dreamers are out of luck “without the desperately needed WALL” and “an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration.” But the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program cannot and should not be the mechanism by which the United States’ immigration system is refurbished.
The clock is ticking for Congress. The grace period extended by Trump to dreamers expires in early March but, as three former homeland security secretaries told Congress on Wednesday, the real deadline is mid-January. Unless a bill is passed and signed by then, there will be insufficient time to establish a system by which dreamers can apply and be vetted for whatever new status is available. Without such a system in place by March 5, dreamers will lose not only protection from deportation but also their work permits—a disaster for them and a blow to the businesses that employ them.
Many Americans may regard congressional dysfunction as a given. That doesn’t mean they will easily forgive a failure to protect dreamers, which would expose so many blameless young people to calamity with so little justification.