Yesterday just hours before his address to Congress President Trump told a group of reporters he was open to a deal on “immigration reform.” There are two take-aways here, that he might be softening his position on deporting millions of illegal immigrants and his use of the colloquial phrase “immigration reform,” code for legalization and higher levels of legal immigration. He has made a few rhetorical dives in that direction during the campaign but then gave his famous immigration address on August 31 which laid out a ten point plan for changing our horrendous immigration system. The plan was excellent. It generally calls for deporting all criminal aliens, securing the border, and only then offering amnesty for Dreamers in exchange for big cuts in legal unskilled immigration.
The good news is the President’s congressional address stuck to the August speech and not the head fake with reporters. As the last month indicates, President Trump despises the media and loves to make them look as if they got the story wrong. So I tend to believe yesterday he was willfully misleading them, not the rest of the country, who primarily heard what he delivered to Congress. Who looks bad now? To the hyper- well informed the President appears to have waffled. To everyone else, the media seem to have been caught in falsely reporting his position on immigration.
However, President Trump badly wants to cut deals with Congress on big items. I wonder if he is laying the groundwork for some sort of deal on immigration. He doesn’t need Congress to build the wall. Authorization for that has existed for 10 years, and some money has been appropriated for it. Nor does he heed an act of Congress to deport illegal immigrants. His DHS can deport anyone it wants within its budgetary constraints. As far as the changes to legal immigration, his August speech indicated that was a long-term goal after the border has been secured and the worst of the illegal population has been deported. I think the President is clearly signaling he wants to give legal status to Dreamers and wants something in return. The New York Times ran with a headline about legalizing “millions.” They do not number in the millions but more like one million. Many of them have registered for protection under President Obama’s DACA executive order of 2012. Before legalizing them President Trump must decide what to do with that executive order. He can end it at any moment, and the Dreamers might be subject to deportation.
I sense President Trump would like the Democratic leadership to come to him with a deal to continue the executive order in exchange for something he wants on immigration. Perhaps that is deal worth making. If, for example, the Democrats agree to abolish the senseless “green card lottery” and make other changes to reduce the number of legal immigrants who can come into the country as relatives of U.S. citizens, Trump might make some progress on his August 2016 agenda here. I am under no illusions the DACA Dreamers will ever be deported. Perhaps that concession is worth something. But something with DACA needs to be done soon.
Overall, I do not believe President Trump is going to betray one of the two key promises that won him office. He believes in his August 2016 list of priorities as do his key counselors. If there is to be a small deal this year, it would only be on extending DACA. This view is also supported by continuing signals that the President will announce a new executive order banning non-immigrant visa holders from many Muslim countries from entering the U.S. to replace the prior one which has been enjoined. It is being scrupulously worked over by the various agencies and White House Counsel’s office to remove the problems which complicated the prior one. This is not the work of a President who wants to change course on immigration enforcement.