The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a case challenging the Trump administration’s rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Its decision will affect the fate of hundreds of thousands of young people known as “dreamers,” who were brought to the United States as children, grew up here, have played by all the rules and want nothing more than to stay in their country and not be deported to places that in many cases they have no memory of. President Trump himself, his administration and his party can’t seem to decide whether that’s a good or bad thing.
We’ve seen this contradiction in Trump’s rhetoric from the beginning. For instance, at a news conference just after taking office, Trump was asked whether he intended to rescind DACA. “We’re gonna show great heart,” he said, “because you have these incredible kids.” But then he added, “And some of the cases, having DACA and they’re gang members and they’re drug dealers, too. But you have some absolutely, incredible kids, I would say mostly.”
This was a lie: In order to be eligible for DACA, you can’t have been convicted of a felony or a “significant misdemeanor” and have to pass a background check, meaning there are no gang members and drug dealers among the 700,000 or so DACA recipients. On Tuesday morning Trump repeated this lie on Twitter, calling “some” of them “hardened criminals” even as he promised to make a deal with the Democrats to let them stay.
But of course, if Trump actually wanted to let them stay, he could have gotten wide bipartisan support for any legislation doing so. He didn’t.
The idea that Trump has sympathy for any immigrant strains credulity, but he might be aware of public opinion on this topic, which is overwhelming. In many polls (see here or here), support for DACA exceeds 80 percent; even the overwhelming majority of Republicans want to see the dreamers stay.
Can that feeling exist comfortably alongside the administration’s shockingly harsh immigration policies, from separating families at the border, to taking punitive measures against asylum seekers, to almost entirely shutting our doors to refugees, to trying to limit legal immigration in every way possible?
Trump and his White House tried to finesse this by initially arguing that, great though their love for dreamers is, they had no choice but to end DACA because it was unconstitutional in the first place. But at Tuesday’s oral arguments, the administration abandoned that position. “We own this,” said Solicitor General Noel Francisco, making clear that ending DACA is what the administration desires, not just a legal position it was forced to take. The five conservative justices seemed ready to support them, which means that hundreds of thousands of dreamers will lose the ability to work legally and will become eligible for deportation. The Trump administration claims it’s in no hurry to deport them. If you believe that, I’ve got a wall (paid for by Mexico!) to sell you.
Interestingly enough, Republican voters have actually gotten slightly more liberal on some immigration questions since Trump has been in office, such as acceptance of refugees. Most of them don’t support the administration’s harsh stances. But those are the policies of the Republican Party now.
If Trump wins this case, as it looks like he will, it’ll be interesting to see what Republicans in Congress have to say about it. Will they lament the fate of the dreamers and quickly join with Democrats on legislation to allow them to stay? Or will they be too terrified of their nativist base to do so?
That’s a question for the immediate future, but Republicans are going to have to figure out what they think about immigration in the long term, especially if Trump were to lose next November. There will be forces in the party arguing that the only path to victory is to be even more Trump than Trump, doubling down on the strategy of capitalizing on fear of immigrants and in the process making sure the GOP stays a party of, by, and for white people. There will be others saying that they have no choice but to make the party more welcoming, to adapt to a changing America.
There’s no way to know which way Republicans will go, because they don’t know themselves. But they’ll have to decide.