If you want to know what is in the president's heart when it comes to "dreamers," you need look no further than the ugly ads his campaign put out last week during the short government shutdown. "I'm Donald Trump, and I approved this message," the ad concluded after claims that Democrats would be complicit in every murder committed by an undocumented immigrant going forward. Most Americans — 70 to 80 percent, according to recent polls — look at dreamers, whose parents brought them here illegally when they were children, and see students, workers, members of the military, taxpayers, indeed fellow Americans except for the unfortunate circumstances of their arrival. Trump looks at them and sees an opportunity to beat up on immigrants, as he has been doing since the day he announced his presidential run with talk of Mexican rapists and criminals bringing drugs across the border. Never mind that immigrants — those here legally and those here illegally — commit crimes at far lower rates than the native-born.
Forget about Trump's big heart. Forget about looking for a Trump-led legislative compromise. If the dreamers gain permanent legal status under a Trump plan, he will take his pound of flesh from their parents and from those from Latin America, Asia and Africa who want to come here in the future legally. Trump's price for allowing some 800,000 dreamers to stay will be to slam the door shut on most everyone else who lacks an advanced degree or doesn't have enough money to invest in a Kushner family business scheme. "I'll take the heat off both the Democrats and the Republicans," Trump said barely more than two weeks ago in a meeting with a bipartisan group of legislators, which millions of Americans watched on live TV. But with Breitbart calling him "Amnesty Don" for having the temerity to suggest that dreamers shouldn't be on the next bus to Mexico, Trump is looking for a way to show he's as anti-immigrant as ever, and what better way to demonstrate his bona fides than to run ads of rabid cop-killers? With only about a third of Americans still in Trump's camp, he's afraid of losing a single immigration hard-liner.
But Trump's craven politics on this issue don't excuse Congress from doing its duty. There are ample votes in both houses to get a bill passed that would put dreamers on a path to citizenship. There is no reason in the world that Congress needs to tackle comprehensive reform at the same time. Immigration reform is complicated and deserves to be taken up with hearings and under normal order in both houses. There are a variety of issues to be decided: Should immigration be primarily skills-based? If so, what skills should qualify a would-be immigrant, and who should decide, government or employers? Should current immigrants and citizens be allowed to sponsor family members, and if so, which ones, spouses, children, parents, siblings? Would Americans be happier to admit immigrants if family members already here guaranteed them financial support for at least 10 years? Should immigrants who have learned English before applying be given priority on the grounds that they would be likelier to find jobs quickly and assimilate? What about America's generous tradition of accepting refugees? Trump has already cut the number admitted by half, but what if refugees were sponsored by churches, synagogues or families so that they wouldn't become public burdens, even for a short time, and would transition to their new lives more quickly? And what about those Central Americans and Haitians who received temporary protective status and built lives here, bought homes, paid taxes, started businesses and gave birth to American-citizen children? Do we really want to kick more than a quarter-million of them out now and send them back to nations still reeling from the effects of natural disasters and wars, including America's drug war?
Don't look to Trump for answers to these questions. He doesn't know what he wants beyond a wall along the Mexican border. If the wall is the price of legal status for the dreamers and other recipients of temporary protected status, it may be worth it. But given that illegal immigration is at a historically low point already — the most recent time illegal border crossings were as low as they are now, Richard Nixon was president — a wall seems an expensive way to soothe Trump's fragile ego. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan need to take the reins from the president and get a dreamer bill passed, with funding for a wall if necessary. If they put a bill on the president's desk, he'll sign it — and try to convince everybody he was for it all along.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.