Why Congress won't save DACA
And how a relatively small band of hard-line conservatives have thwarted America's majority on this immigration program
If America's government were functioning properly, the Trump administration deciding to discontinue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program started by President Obama in June 2012 (over the strenuous objection of Republicans in Congress) would be no big deal. After all, DACA is very popular. So in a functional government, Congress would just step in and pass a bill that reflected public opinion on the issue, and President Trump would likely be forced to sign it.
But Congress is unlikely to do any such thing — because America's representative institutions are horribly broken.
It's not that Americans don't want Congress to act. In a Pew poll published less than a year ago, a whopping 72 percent described it as "somewhat important" or "very important" that the country "allow those who came here illegally as children to remain here," while 62 percent would also like to establish a "way for most immigrants currently here illegally to stay legally."
Now, it's true that solid majorities also consider it somewhat or very important to enact "stricter policies to prevent people from overstaying their visas" as well as ways of precluding those "here illegally from receiving government benefits if unqualified." But this points toward a perfectly reasonable compromise: Allow those brought illegally to the U.S. as children (and perhaps other undocumented immigrants as well) to stay in the country, while cracking down on visa violations and abuses of government benefits among noncitizens. This could also be paired with lowering the total number of immigrants allowed into the country every year, and changing the criteria for determining who to admit, favoring those who are "highly skilled" (which is considered somewhat or very important by 58 percent of respondents).
Easy. Simple. Right?
Unfortunately, when it comes to our representative institutions, nothing is easy or simple these days. Despite an overwhelming majority of the country favoring such a compromise, Congress has repeatedly failed to act. Indeed it was this failure that provoked President Obama to bypass Congress in the first place. (That's not a defense of Obama's actions, which may well have been unconstitutional.)
What is the source of the failure? When it comes to immigration, it is caused by the simultaneous unity and deep division of the Republican Party.
The GOP is primarily unified in its hatred of Democrats. That is enough to hold the party together at election time, which (along with gerrymandered districts) has given it control of both houses of Congress.
But once in power, the party is hamstrung. Yes, 60 percent of Republicans (joining 82 percent of Democrats) consider it somewhat or very important that those who came to the U.S. illegally as children be allowed to stay. But that leaves 40 percent of the party considering it "not too important" or "not important at all." That's a lot of Republicans — somewhere between one-third and one-half of the party — who are relatively indifferent to the issue, with a portion of them actively opposed to allowing these immigrants to stay in the country at all.
Why should that be a problem? Parties, especially in a two-party system like ours, are rarely ideologically coherent across all issues. When a significant fissure opens up over policy, the faction of the party that finds common ground with the opposition party is supposed to reach a compromise that reflects the state of public opinion in the country as a whole. In this case, we would get a bipartisan bill creating something like Obama's DACA with proper legislative authorship. Well over two-thirds of the country would approve of such a solution.
Yet that's unlikely to happen — because, once again, the primary thing that unifies the GOP is hatred of Democrats, which mitigates against any bipartisan compromise at all, and because President Trump finds his strongest base of support among the voters least likely to support allowing undocumented immigrants who came here as children to remain in the country. (Indeed, he made his opposition to DACA a centerpiece of his campaign.)
That's how 72 percent of the country is likely to see its wishes thwarted by the preferences of a much smaller faction of hard-line anti-immigration Republicans.
This isn't the way representative government is supposed to work. That it's how our government increasingly does work is a highly distressing sign that our institutions are failing to function properly at the most elemental level.
And make no mistake: If such democratic dysfunction continues, it is unlikely to end well.