Why Republicans might do almost nothing on immigration
Fearing a backlash, they might build a middling version of the wall — and that's about it
There was no single issue that animated Republican voters more in 2016 than immigration. Not only did Donald Trump thrill them with his talk of building a "big, beautiful wall" on the southern border, the unwanted presence of immigrants — supposedly taking jobs, committing crimes, and accelerating the disorienting process of cultural change — symbolized for many everything that's wrong with the country and everything Trump would banish in his effort to Make America Great Again. Yet now that the GOP is about to have total control of the federal government, is it possible that on immigration they could do...almost nothing? Yes, it is.
To be clear, I'm presenting an optimistic scenario here, perhaps too optimistic. The fear that immigrant families feel at Trump's election is profound and amply justified. But we're already seeing signs that the Republicans aren't going to follow through on all their threats, or at least will have a tough time doing so.
There's an analogy here with the Affordable Care Act. For years, Republicans pledged to repeal it, telling their rabid base over and over that the moment that vile Barack Obama was driven out of town, they'd burn it at the stake like the satanic legislation that it is. But now that they're actually confronted with the consequences of that pledge, they're almost paralyzed. They need to keep their promise to a base demanding to see the ACA go up in a cleansing and righteous fire. But doing so means tossing at least 20 million people off their health coverage and making everyone else's coverage less secure, which will be a political nightmare for them. If there's a way to thread the needle, they haven't figured it out.
Their task with immigration is a bit easier, because there is a whole menu of things they can do (or fail to do), and it will be possible to do some of them and claim victory. But some of the same dangers — having America see them as heartlessly destroying people's lives, because that's exactly what they'll be doing — are lurking ahead.
Fortunately for Republicans, building the wall may be the easiest measure they can take. While it's an engineering and land-use challenge (there are lots of landowners along the border who aren't keen on the federal government taking their land and slapping up a wall on it), from a political standpoint it's pretty straightforward. It almost certainly won't cover the whole border, but as long as they can build it in some places, they'll hold photo-ops there, say that where walls were impractical they've constructed an "electronic wall" of drones and other surveillance, appropriate some more money for the Border Patrol, and congratulate themselves on having allegedly secured the border.
The tough part comes when they decide what to do with the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. During the campaign Trump made a lot of bogus claims about millions of criminal aliens being here, whom he'd supposedly round up. But before long he'll probably take credit for what Barack Obama did (and it won't be the last time); you may not be aware of it, but Obama deported more people than any president in history, and there are fewer undocumented immigrants in the U.S. now than there were when he came into office. In fact, net migration from Mexico has been negative for the last couple of years, meaning more people moved from the U.S. to Mexico than came north.
But what about the remaining undocumented? And what about the "Dreamers," those who were brought here as children and have grown up as Americans? Through executive actions, Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which allows them to stay and work legally. Is Trump going to eliminate it with the stroke of a pen?
Don't bet on it, and here's where Republicans' fear of the wider electorate comes in. Just imagine the spectacle of the government rounding up 750,000 law-abiding young people who want nothing more than to work and contribute to the country they've grown up in, then deporting them to places that they barely know. That prospect is why, when Paul Ryan was confronted at a town hall meeting last week by a woman named Angelica Villalobos who is part of the DACA program and asked whether he thought she should be deported, he said this:
No. No, Angelica. First of all, I can see that you love your daughter and you are a nice person who has a great future ahead of you and I hope your future is here. I'll even repeat the sentiment that our incoming president says. That's the problem he wants to focus on. This is not the focus.
And so, what we have to do is find a way to make sure that you can get right with the law and we've got to do this in a good way, so that the rug doesn't get pulled out from under you and your family gets separated. That's the way we feel and that is exactly what our new incoming president has stated he wants to do….
I'm sure you're a great contributor to [your] community and we don't want to see you get separated from your family. So, we have to figure out how to fix this...But if you're worried about, you know, some deportation force coming, knocking on your door this year, don't worry about that.
My point isn't that we should take Ryan at his word on this, about what will happen in Congress or about what Donald Trump wants to do or will do. But the fact that he feels the need to express those sentiments is telling.
Yet on the other hand, the Republican base has to be satisfied that the people they elected are keeping the promises they made. For that base, there was no greater example of the fecklessness of Republican elites than their occasional flirtation with comprehensive immigration reform. They skewered Jeb Bush for his disturbing tendency to talk about immigrants like human beings, and forced Marco Rubio to grovel in apology for working with the "Gang of Eight" in its unsuccessful attempt to pass a comprehensive reform bill. When Trump came out in his announcement speech and went on a rant about how Mexican immigrants were "bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists," they knew they had found their man.
So while we probably won't get real reform in the next four years, Republicans may try to do just the easy things like building a wall, quietly let DACA continue, talk about how "tough" they're being, and declare victory. That would mean immigration policies that aren't much different from what they are now. It won't be particularly honest, but the alternative is a lot worse.