The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Guess what? Trump has no clue how to stop undocumented immigrants.

President Trump speaks with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials as he tours the wall between the United States and Mexico in Calexico, Calif., on April 5. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump’s motto is: Double down rather than back down. So his reaction to The Post’s scoop Thursday — that the White House was considering releasing undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities represented by Democrats — was entirely predictable. White House aides at first assured reporters that this harebrained scheme was not being seriously contemplated. Rather than allow this story to quietly fade away, Trump felt compelled to toss a flash-bang grenade on Twitter: “We are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities only.... The Radical Left always seems to have an Open Borders, Open Arms policy — so this should make them very happy!”

This isn’t governing. It’s trolling. After more than two years in office, Trump still doesn’t get that he’s not just some guy on the barstool yelling at the TV. This is the kind of idea that a couple of college Republicans in MAGA hats would hatch over a few too many beers as a way to “own” the “libtards.” That the president is semi-seriously contemplating it shows, among other things, that he does not view himself as the leader of the whole country — only of the Trump cult that comprises no more than 40 percent of the population. That is why he would suggest using government resources — funded by taxes paid by blue and red states alike — to score partisan points against his political opponents.

Even by Trump’s relaxed standards of logic, however, this brainstorm is particularly bizarre. It seems to rest on the assumption that, in their hearts, Democrats share Trump’s aversion to non-European immigrants and would be so aghast at the prospect of Central American asylum seekers arriving in their backyards that they would agree to draconian restrictions on immigration. The mayors of Oakland and Seattle, among others, called Trump’s bluff by saying that they would welcome the newcomers. As my colleague Philip Bump noted, two-thirds of 34 identified sanctuary cities already have a higher immigrant population than the country at large (including an estimated 3.5 million undocumented immigrants), so a few thousand more wouldn’t make much of a difference.

If the point is to scare away would-be immigrants, it’s hard to see why they would be deterred by the prospect of a free trip to destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago or New York. Aside from being impractical — it would require the reallocation of scarce Customs and Border Protection resources — this scheme is probably also illegal, raising all sorts of concerns about due process and equal protection.

Follow Max Boot's opinionsFollow

This idea isn’t half-baked. It’s not even a quarter baked. That Trump is even talking about this shows the White House’s intellectual bankruptcy on the president’s No. 1 political issue. Trump promised to stop undocumented immigration. Instead it has hit the highest level in a decade, with 268,044 migrants apprehended between October and February along the southern U.S. border.

Trump’s signature idea for combating this problem — build a wall and make Mexico pay for it — remains a fantasy. Portions of the wall may get built now that Trump has evoked his emergency powers to use funds already appropriated by Congress for other projects, but it won’t make any difference for asylum seekers who are presenting themselves at ports of entry. Trump tried a punitive approach last year of separating families and locking up children in cages, but so great was the outcry that this inhumane policy was dropped after a few months.

In desperation, Trump and his immigration mastermind, senior policy adviserStephen Miller, have been tossing out ideas that are either counterproductive (cutting aid to three Central American nations), impractical (closing the border) or illegal (denying refugees the right to seek asylum). When officials at the Department of Homeland Security refused to endorse these schemes, Trump reacted with the fury of a capricious monarch, purging the senior ranks of the department, from Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on down.

CNN and the New York Times have reported that Trump even told Kevin McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner who is now acting DHS secretary, that he would receive a pardon if he went to jail for telling border agents to turn away asylum seekers in contravention of the law. Presumably, Trump wants Border Protection to tell newcomers: “Our Country is FULL!” This is untrue (only about 3 percent of the country is urbanized, and our population density is less than one-third of Europe’s), and what Trump is proposing is illegal, indeed unconstitutional. If he is dangling his pardon power to encourage subordinates to break the law, the president is violating his constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Why would Trump act in such a desperate and reckless fashion? Because he doesn’t have any better ideas. He literally doesn’t know what to do. It is why he is accusing Democrats of being “TREASONOUS” for supposedly advocating an “Open Border mindset” in the hopes that this will distract from his own failure. You can almost see the flop sweat on Trump’s tweets. He is learning the hard way that there is no easy or obvious solution to the problem of undocumented immigration — and he is deathly afraid that his voters will conclude that he conned them by telling them that there was.

Read more:

James Downie: The Trump White House’s immigration paradox

Dana Milbank: On the border, Trump alone couldn’t fix it. In fact, he broke it.

The Post’s View: Neither Trump nor Democrats have advanced a solution for the border. Here’s one.

The Post’s View: Trump’s huffing and puffing at the border won’t make the migration problem disappear

Jennifer Rubin: Another Trump border program thwarted by federal judge