Today, President Trump hosted a bipartisan meeting at the White House in an attempt to iron out differences between the parties on immigration that are preventing Congress from passing a budget and thereby threatening yet another government shutdown.
At the meeting, Trump reportedly endorsed the general idea of doing something to protect the “dreamers” first and then moving on to a more comprehensive set of immigration reforms later. At the same time, he again insisted on construction of a wall as part of any deal for the dreamers.
Which means that, as long as Trump is involved in the negotiations, a border wall is going to be at the center of them. And this could offer Democrats a way to get a great deal of what they want.
The Trump administration has been doing everything it can to enact the cruelest and most counterproductive set of policies possible on immigration, driven by a group of nativists within the administration, including White House policy aide Stephen Miller and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The recent decision to end Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans living in the country is only the latest move; the administration has also sharply cut back on the number of refugees admitted to the country, undertaken a wave of immigration arrests and, most notably, ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).
But while the president himself has throughout his life displayed an animus toward immigrants and non-whites, when it comes to specific policies he has little in the way of fixed opinions. On DACA, for instance, he regularly talks about how wonderful the recipients are and how he wants to protect them — then signs off on deporting them. What does he actually believe should be done? It depends what day you catch him on and who spoke to him last.
But there is one thing Trump cares more about than anything else: his border wall.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the symbolic importance the wall holds for Trump. Throughout his campaign for president, he used it as a representation of everything he would offer his supporters: a way to keep out not only immigrants diluting the country’s whiteness but the very forces of modernity and change. His message was clear: The wall will protect us not just from crime and drugs but from a confusing and threatening world. Even better, he told his fans that Mexico would pay for it.
Whenever Trump talked about other countries, it was always in terms of shame and humiliation: they’ve made us into losers, they’re beating us, and most of all, they’re laughing at us. Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — forcing them to their knees in a ritual humiliation — and we’ll recapture our sense of mastery and potency.
If you were, say, a 60-year-old white guy with uncertain economic prospects and a feeling that the world had passed you by, it was a compelling message. Maybe you knew Mexico would never pay for a wall, but that didn’t make the idea any less thrilling. And while Trump may not talk about making Mexico pay anymore, he has to keep the idea of the wall alive, to show his supporters that it wasn’t all a lie.
That’s the context to understand a report like this one from today’s New York Times:
The Trump administration would cut or delay funding for border surveillance, radar technology, patrol boats and customs agents in its upcoming spending plan to curb illegal immigration — all proven security measures that officials and experts have said are more effective than building a wall along the Mexican border.
President Trump has made the border wall a focus of his campaign against illegal immigration to stop drugs, terrorists and gangs like MS-13 from coming into the United States. Under spending plans submitted last week to Congress, the wall would cost $18 billion over the next 10 years, and be erected along nearly 900 miles of the southern border.
It’s not about what works or what doesn’t; it’s about the symbolism. Which gives Democrats an opportunity. Up until now, they’ve quite properly been adamantly opposed to the wall, stating that they’ll never accept it under any circumstances. But what if they offered to give Trump at least something he could call a wall — more money for border fencing in certain areas, say — but demanded that, in exchange, he not only consent to allow DACA recipients to stay and have a path to citizenship, but also roll back some of the other immigration changes the administration has made?
Many Republicans wouldn’t like it, but it might win Trump over. He’d get to say he built his wall, and Democrats would get a substantive victory by winning a reprieve for Dreamers and making the administration’s immigration policies less awful.
Democrats wouldn’t have to go back on their insistence that the wall is a terrible idea, a belief they share with a majority of the public. For instance, this Washington Post/ABC News poll from September found that 86 percent of Americans believe DACA recipients should be allowed to stay in the United States, and 65 percent said they’d support pairing DACA with increased border security measures. But only 37 percent supported building a border wall, while 62 percent opposed it. But they could argue, quite reasonably, that they gave a little on the wall to achieve a greater good. It might be a bitter pill to swallow, but if it means they can attract significant concessions, it could be well worth it.
In other words, they’d be using Trump’s silly obsession to substantially mitigate the real and substantial damage he’s already doing to the lives of immigrants, their families and the communities in which they live. It might be worth it.