Back in the dead of winter, when there was a government shutdown over DACA, the Trump administration offered a bargain: a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients in return for a dramatic reduction in legal immigration. At the time, some right-leaning pundits argued in favor of negotiating such a deal. I was more skeptical: “As I understand it, the deal being offered by the Trump administration is not a good one on policy grounds, on political grounds and on public opinion grounds. These seem like solid enough reasons for no substantive negotiations with Stephen Miller.”
Now it’s the start of summer, immigration issues are again front and center, and Andrew Sullivan has resuscitated the conservative argument in favor of a grand bargain in his New York column:
So give [Trump] his . . . wall. He won the election. He is owed this. It may never be completed; it may not work, as hoped. But it is now the only way to reassure a critical mass of Americans that mass immigration is under control, and the only way to make any progress under this president. And until the white working and middle classes are reassured, we will get nowhere. Don’t give it to him for nothing, of course. It should come with a full path to citizenship for all DACA immigrants, as in the proposed deal in January that Trump first liked and then reneged on, under Miller’s toxic influence. But it should also go bigger: a legislative fix for Flores; massive new funding for detention facilities, humane family-friendly housing, and, above all, much more money for the immigration legal system, now completely overwhelmed by asylum cases. If Democrats can show they want to deal with the humanitarian problem as a whole, and are willing to compromise on the wall, they’ll be in a much stronger position going forward than in the recent past. . . .
If all this sounds like appeasing a bigot, I understand. But better to see it, I think, as a way to address the legitimate concerns, fears, and worries of a large number of Americans who feel like strangers in their own land, and whose emotional response to that has been to empower the white nationalist right. It’s also simply the moral thing to do to relieve real human misery on the borders. It’s good politics too, I’d argue, for both parties in the medium term. At some point, the GOP will need to drop the appearance of bald-faced racism, callousness, and brute force, if they are to survive anywhere outside their base. And equally, the Democrats who are currently posturing are playing a good card badly. They give off the appearance, as Hillary Clinton did, of making no distinction between legal and illegal immigration, favoring de facto open borders, and calling anyone who disagrees with them a white supremacist. Until they recognize that illegal immigration is a huge and legitimate problem, and until they propose a set of actual policy proposals to end it humanely and efficiently, they run the risk of another 2016 in 2020.
Here’s the thing: In the past four months, my argument has gotten stronger and the mediocre conservative argument has gotten weaker. For one thing, whatever doubts might have existed about President Trump being able to bargain in good faith — or even bargain coherently —should have dissipated by now. In the past week, during the peak of the family-separation crisis, Trump has been all over the map, urging Congress to pass something and then saying, in essence, “never mind.” If Trump is not negotiating in bad faith, then he is negotiating in such an short-sighted fashion that there is no point in dealing with him. As the New York Times’s Peter Baker bluntly phrased it over the weekend:
[Trump’s] 17 months in office have in fact been an exercise in futility for the art-of-the-deal president. No deal on immigration. No deal on health care. No deal on gun control. No deal on spending cuts. No deal on Nafta. No deal on China trade. No deal on steel and aluminum imports. No deal on Middle East peace. No deal on the Qatar blockade. No deal on Syria. No deal on Russia. No deal on Iran. No deal on climate change. No deal on Pacific trade.
Now, if public opinion was swinging in Trump’s direction on this, maybe there’s a political argument for giving negotiations another go. The thing is, Gallup reports that the opposite is true:
A record-high 75% of Americans, including majorities of all party groups, think immigration is a good thing for the U.S. — up slightly from 71% last year. Just 19% of the public considers immigration a bad thing. . . .
Corroborating the data that show Americans believe immigration is good for the country, a separate Gallup trend question shows a record-low number of Americans — 29% — saying that immigration into the U.S. should be decreased. A plurality of 39% think immigration into the U.S. should be kept at its present level, while 28% say it should be increased. . . .
Gallup polling has shown that the public is at odds with Trump over the border wall and strongly favors allowing DACA children to remain in the U.S. and have a path to citizenship. More generally, Americans’ strong belief that immigration is a good thing for the country and that immigration levels shouldn’t be decreased present the president and Congress with some tough decisions as the midterm elections loom.
Neither Trump’s bargaining style nor public sentiment offers a satisfying justification for Sullivan’s argument. What if it is a pressing policy crisis? In a follow-up tweet, Sullivan suggests that this is a crisis for the United States, arguing, “Slowing massive demographic change is not fascist; it’s conservative.” If there really was an unprecedented flow of immigrants, then maybe there’s a compelling argument to try for a grand bargain.
Except that the most important crises on the border are the ones of the administration’s own making. Contra Trump, there is no illegal immigration crime wave — indeed, as The Post’s Philip Bump has reported, Trump’s statistics on this issue are completely made up. And there has been no surge of immigrants illegally crossing the border. The New York Times reported over the weekend that, “Unauthorized crossings along the border with Mexico have sharply declined over the past two decades, according to government data.”
Lawfare’s Stephanie Leutert has even more data:
First off, while the current administration has tried to tie Central American migrants to MS-13, government data reveals that gang members crossing irregularly are the rare exceptions. Since the Trump administration took office, the Border Patrol has detected fewer gang members crossing irregularly than during the Obama administration. In FY2017, these detections amounted to 0.075 percent of the total number of migrants (228 MS-13 members out of 303,916 total migrants). When combined with MS-13’s rival, the Barrio 18 gang, the number rises only slightly to 0.095 percent. This is far from the “infestation” of violent gang members described by the president.
The current crisis hasn’t been caused by a sudden influx of migration, either. The peak in apprehensions of irregular migrants actually took place some 17 years ago, in FY2000. At that point, U.S. Border Patrol agents caught 1,643,679 migrants attempting to enter the United States without the appropriate papers, compared to 303,916 apprehensions in this past fiscal year. But this decreasing number of apprehensions should not be confused with a gentler, kinder approach to border security — in fact, just the opposite. Since 2001, the number of Border Patrol agents along the southwest border has nearly doubled from 9,147 agents to 16,605. Border fencing also increased: to date, there are 705 miles of fencing along the 2,000-mile long U.S.-Mexico border.
The flows of Central American migrants seeking safety from gang violence is definitely a policy problem that needs to be addressed. But it is not a crisis, except in the ways that the administration is diverting resources away from bigger problems. USA Today’s Brad Heath notes how Trump’s policies are making things worse by prioritizing misdemeanor crimes over felonies:
Federal prosecutors warned they were diverting resources from drug-smuggling cases in southern California to handle the flood of immigration charges brought on by the Trump administration’s border crackdown, records obtained by USA TODAY show.
Days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed prosecutors to bring charges against anyone who enters the United States illegally, a Justice Department supervisor in San Diego sent an email to border authorities warning that immigration cases “will occupy substantially more of our resources.” He wrote that the U.S. Attorney’s Office there was “diverting staff, both support and attorneys, accordingly.”
The email, sent by the lawyer who runs the office’s major crimes unit, said prosecutors needed to streamline their work on smuggling cases. He said that would mean tight deadlines — sometimes just a few hours to produce reports and recordings — for those that would land in federal court. Going forward, the lawyer, Fred Sheppard, warned, if agents can’t meet that high bar, “the case will be declined.”
Note that I have yet to write anything about the morality of negotiating with a president who talks about immigrants like an infestation. On practical grounds alone, Sullivan is flat-out wrong.
Democrats should be willing to bargain in good faith on immigration in the future, but only with counterparties who are equally willing to bargain in good faith. And “good faith” and “Trump” can no longer fit in the same sentence unironically.