The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump: I can’t fix the immigration problem, so Republicans should demagogue it instead

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Trump has immigration on the brain again:

Trump is angry that, by his own telling, the border is out of control, and he’s urging Republicans to place this front and center in the midterm elections. But new reporting in The Post sheds light on what, specifically, he’s upset about:

The number of migrant parents entering the United States with children has surged to record levels in the three months since President Trump ended family separations at the border, dealing the administration a deepening crisis three weeks before the midterm elections.
Border Patrol agents arrested 16,658 family members in September, the highest one-month total on record and an 80 percent increase from July, according to unpublished Department of Homeland Security statistics obtained by The Washington Post. …
Having campaigned on a promise to stop illegal immigration and build a border wall, Trump now faces a spiraling enforcement challenge with no ready solutions. The soaring arrest numbers — and a new caravan of Central American migrants heading north — have left him in a furious state, White House aides say.

We already know Trump takes the state of the border very personally — when he believes he is failing in some way on illegal immigration, he tends to fret that this undercuts the very mystique of Trump toughness that supposedly got him elected. And now that’s happening again.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

But what’s particularly telling right now is that Trump apparently has no idea what to actually do about the current surge. The Post reports that Trump’s top advisers, including Stephen Miller, are feeding Trump’s rage to push him toward reinstating some version of the child separations that the administration halted amid a national outcry:

Aides including Miller and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have continually told the president that many of the children coming across the border are being smuggled illegally and that the United States is being taken advantage of. The president’s welling anger has left him pushing once more for a reinstatement of a family-separation policy in some form, which he believes is the only thing that has worked, despite the controversy it triggered.

But there’s no particular reason to believe that those family separations actually “worked” before they were halted. It’s true that during the separations, illegal border crossings — measured by border arrests — dropped relative to earlier this spring. But overall, they actually remained significantly higher than the levels were during Trump’s first year, when they plummeted upon his taking office.

Trump officials themselves boasted at the time that this initial drop proved that Trump’s “toughness” was working. So the fact that crossings were actually up during the separations — relative to that first year — suggests that this variety of toughness wasn’t actually working by Trump’s own lights. (Never mind the fact that even if they did “work,” that is, dissuade people from seeking refuge here, including the desperate, the separations are still unjustifiable as policy.)

Regardless, even if it were true that the current surge is the result of ending the family separations as a deterrent, it appears that even some Trump administration members are reluctant to reinstate them. The administration does not want to release asylum-seeking families into the interior while they wait for the process to unfold, but criminally prosecuting adults requires children to be separated. So officials are reportedly considering reviving the separations in a new form called “binary choice,” which would give asylum-seeking families a choice either to stay in immigration detention (as opposed to federal jail) with their child for as long as it takes their immigration case to develop, or to let the government move the child to a shelter or to relatives.

It’s not even clear that this version would pass legal muster, given limits on how long children can be detained. But even so, The Post reports that some Department of Homeland Security officials remain “wary of the proposal and the potential blowback it could bring,” in part because they may not have the capacity to detain all those people. Meanwhile, the other day, Trump wildly lashed out on Twitter, insisting that if Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador keep allowing people to try to get into the United States, “all payments made to them will STOP.”

But at bottom, this was raving — another sign that these surges are really hard to control, as they are caused by larger, complicated forces that can’t be easily combated. As Dara Lind explained:

Trump’s simplistic view of migration — in which people immigrate because their government is “sending” them, and governments ought to try to keep people from leaving so they can “make their countries great again” — doesn’t fit Central American migration to the US. The continued flow of people, often children and families, and often seeking asylum, from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador through Mexico to the US is both a complicated policy problem (in which issues of economic and humanitarian migration get tangled up) and a matter of really sensitive diplomatic dynamics.

Trump doesn’t appreciate all these complexities. More broadly, it bears repeating that the bigger package of “tough” measures Trump favors to “solve” the larger immigration problem — a border wall, deep cuts to legal immigration — got the fewest of any votes in the Senate, meaning his solutions don’t have enough Republican support to pass Congress. Trump doesn’t know what to do about that, either, except threaten government shutdowns that aren’t going to happen.

But one thing Trump does know is that Republicans should demagogue the issue.