One thing that we can already say only a year into Donald Trump's presidency is that despite his rhetoric he is far less of an immigration hardliner than Barack Obama was.
For an issue that is essentially prudential — no one seriously believes that it should be unlimited or that it should end tomorrow without exceptions — rather than ideological, immigration tends to be discussed in fairly emotional terms. This is understandable. Whether a person remains in this country with a job, in proximity to his family, or is deported to Central America is not something about which anyone can be expected to be dispassionate. What is not understandable is our unwillingness to accept the numbers at face value: Obama set records for deportation, returning more immigrants in 2015 than Trump did the following year or is likely to do in any of the three — or seven — years to come.
Why it should be the case that Barack Amnesty Oliar was tougher on immigration than the Breitbart-approved candidate who calmly insisted that Mexico was sending us their "rapists" is one of those puzzles that will baffle talk radio hosts and MSNBC anchors alike. Part of the explanation is that the number of border crossings was down in 2016. It is also the case that Trump's bombastic talk about immigration has made anti-deportation activists more vigilant than they were wont to be when their ostensible ally was in the White House.
But the real answer is very simple. Unlike his predecessor, who was relentlessly committed to pursing his charted course as a moderate center-right technocrat and rarely perturbed by the messy human costs of this approach, the current president has no fixed positions on matters of public policy, only a vague emotive intelligence that is rarely brought to bear on the pros and cons of actual legislation. If during one of last year's numberless attempts to replace the Affordable Care Act a bill that made Medicare a universal public benefit had passed and reached his desk, it would have been signed into law. If Jared or Ivanka whisper vaguely that reducing immigration is bad for business, he's as good as sold.
Trump's appeal has nothing to do with what he does or does not pass. All of his failings can and will be blamed on the fecklessness of the congressional GOP and the machinations of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His base supports him because he makes a fuss about the flag and the National Anthem. In this sense, he is rather like Ronald Reagan, a man who seems to have thought in one liners and made older Americans think that they were safe because a tough-talking cowboy was in the White House while the man in question quietly pursued compromises over entitlement spending, nuclear disarmament, and, of course, amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Which is why it should come as no surprise when Trump tells a roomful of legislators to pass whatever compromise they can hash out on President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump canceled via executive order while directing Congress to put it into law. "If we do this properly, DACA, you are not so far away from comprehensive immigration reform, and if you want to take it that further step, I'll take the heat," he said on Monday. "I don't care. I don't care. I'll take all the heat you want to give me."
This should be a no-brainer for all people of good will in either party. Whatever you think about the costs and benefits of immigration — its effect on wages for lower-middle-class Americans, for example, or the possibility that by allowing increasing numbers of people from South and Central America to flee their countries we are forestalling desperately needed reforms abroad — it is impossible to back away from the reality that deporting some 800,000 people who were brought to the United States as children and know no other home would be barbarous. As the president himself said last fall, "Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated, and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?" Unlike Obama, who in the face of Republican opposition was forced to resort to an executive order, Trump has the political capital to make their status permanent.
So far the only potential hang-up is Trump's insistence that any DACA replacement legislation contain funding for his fabled wall, the one that Mexico was supposed to pay for. So appropriate a couple of billion dollars for bricks and barbed wire and use them to build cattle pastures in Kansas or deer fences in Wisconsin. As long as there are a few hundred feet in front of which Trump can have his picture taken or hold a press conference, he will be satisfied, and so will his core supporters.