Donald Trump ties hardline immigration demands to a deal on DACA

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DONALD TRUMP prides himself on his skills as a negotiator. Among the tips he offers in “The Art of the Deal” is to “think big.” “To me it’s very simple,” he explains. “If you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.” Of course, maximalism has always seemed more credo than negotiating strategy for Mr Trump. But it provides a lens through which to view the set of immigration “principles” that the president sent to Congress on the evening of October 8th. 

In September, Mr Trump announced a six-month wind-down for an Obama-era programme called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gives two-year work and residency permits to young undocumented immigrants, without criminal records, who were brought to America before they were 16, provided they are in or have graduated from high school or university or were honourably discharged from the army. That surprised nobody; Mr Trump campaigned hard against illegal immigration, and his administration abounds in immigration hardliners—notably Jeff Sessions, his attorney-general, and Stephen Miller, a one-time aide to Mr Sessions turned policy advisor.

But soon after ending DACA, Mr Trump indicated that he would be open to a deal that protected the programme’s nearly 800,000 recipients. Most Americans, including most Republicans, believe that recipients should be allowed to stay; they were, after all, brought to America and raised there through no fault of their own. But enough Congressional Republicans disagree that any deal would depend on Democratic support. After a meeting with “Chuck and Nancy”—Schumer and Pelosi, the Senate and House Democratic leaders—the three were all smiles. There were reports that a deal had been struck. Those reports proved wrong, however. And after Sunday’s release of positions “that must be included in as part of any legislation addressing the status of DACA recipients”, the smiles have faded. 

Some of Mr Trump’s “principles” are unobjectionable, such as cracking down on visa overstays and requiring that employers electronically verify the immigration status of prospective hires. But the administration also says that any deal must include funding for a border wall—an immediate non-starter for Democrats (and probably repellent to budget-hawk Republicans too: the wall is a ludicrously expensive showpiece). The administration also wants funding to hire another 10,000 immigration agents and 300 prosecutors “to support Federal immigration prosecution efforts.” 

Others likely to irk Democrats include making it easier to repatriate unaccompanied children; making it harder to successfully claim asylum; expanding the range of offences for which immigrants can be rejected; ending a lottery that awards 50,000 green cards; ending federal funding to “sanctuary cities” and barring citizens and permanent residents from bringing over family members, except for spouses and children younger than 18. The administration is also reportedly dead-set against providing DACA recipients with a path to citizenship, which most Democrats and a fair number of congressional Republicans support. “Chuck and Nancy” were quick to release a joint statement calling the administration’s positions “anathema…to the immigrant community and to the vast majority of Americans.”

Two White House officials told Politico that these positions were just an opening bid—Mr Trump “thinking big”, in other words. But the immigration debate has grown so acrimonious that both sides reject positions that they ought to support, or at the very least be able to live with. DACA recipients are precisely the sort of accomplished, diligent, educated immigrants that Republicans claim to want. Similarly, Democrats should have no objection to a more secure border (and indeed, privately many accept that a deal will have to include extra funding for border security; just not the wall). 

The two sides now have five months left to strike a deal for DACA recipients. Republicans inclined to accept a deal will worry about primary challenges from the right (DACA ends just as campaign season heats up); those inclined to oppose will worry about footage showing Americans in all but name being rounded up and forcibly deported. Democrats face pressure to keep DACA recipients in the country they have grown up in, but also to avoid too much capitulation to Mr Trump—who is, after all, an unpopular president without a single legislative victory since taking office.

Mr Trump might also be worried about that last part. Another principle from “The Art of the Deal” puts it best: “You can’t con people, at least not for long. You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”

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