Jonathan Drake / Reuters

During and after the 2016 election, friends in the immigration restriction movement would remonstrate: "Donald Trump is the only hope we have, don’t you see that?”

I’d answer, “He’s betrayed everyone else who ever trusted him. What makes you think you will be special?” And today, President Trump confirmed my dark view: He’s just inflicted near-lethal damage on any hope of enduring immigration reform in the national interest.

The New York Times reports today that Trump will extend indefinitely the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that confers residency and work rights on 800,000 people who illegally entered the United States as minors.

Perhaps fearing the political fallout, White House officials told the Times later on Friday morning that the memoranda issued the night before did not represent a final decision, and that the president might yet resume his previous position. As always with President Trump: who knows? Yet the direction of movement is becoming more obvious.

During the campaign, Trump had repeatedly promised to end the protected status of this group, the so-called Dreamers. In office, however, he had postponed a decision about their status. In the first three quarter of 2017, the Trump administration allowed the program to continue to operate. It issued some 17,000 new “Dreamer” visas and renewed more than 107,000 others as they came due.

This looked like the beginning of a legislative strategy on immigration reform: preserve DACA as a potential concession to be offered in a trade for other things sought by immigration restrictionists, including reducing the total number of immigrants, rebalancing immigration away from adult relatives of recent immigrants to very highly skilled workers, and implementing more effective enforcement measures. (The Cotton-Perdue bill in the Senate contains the full wish list.)

But to get something, you always have to give something. The Deferred Action program was the give. And Trump just gave it away for free.

Trump defenders may counter that the Trump administration simultaneously cancelled another Obama executive-amnesty program, which extended protected status to unauthorized immigrants who are parents of people with U.S. residency rights, including DACA beneficiaries, a population of potentially 5 million people. But that huge program was stopped by the courts in 2015 and never went into effect. A 4-4 Supreme Court left in place the appellate court holding that DAPA (as the adult program is known) exceeded presidential power. Finishing it off is an act of administrative cleaning up.

Yet that formality looks to be the only enduring legacy of Donald Trump to the immigration restrictionists to whom he owes so much. The Cotton-Perdue bill is going nowhere fast. If the GOP looses heavily in 2018, as seems probable, it will sink forever.

The Trump administration is stepping up the tempo of arrests and raids. But without a stronger legislative basis for enforcement—including above all meaningful penalties for employers of illegal labor—that tempo will last only as long as Trump’s first cabinet: likely not very long at all. And if Democrats take either house of Congress (or both) in 2018, they can cut or eliminate the funding for such enforcement.

The wall isn’t being built, won’t be built, and was anyway never anything more than an expensive symbol.

Trump’s true immigration legacy will be as negligible and counter-productive as the rest of his policy agenda:

  • unilateral, unnegotiated, and unrecompensed ratification of President Obama’s executive amnesty;
  • termination of an already suspended program;
  • no new legislation to curb numbers or rebalance priorities;
  • and just enough of the most provocative kind of enforcement to mobilize his opponents without doing much to alter the incentives faced by past and future illegal immigrant populations.

Exactly why Trump betrayed his most ardent supporters will be a study for reporters and psychologists. Was it the influence of his daughter and son-in-law? The advice of his pollsters and political strategists? Or was there no plan at all, just a consequence of his administration’s utter ineffectuality at passing anything through Congress—and the president’s own overwhelming concentration on his business interests and legal troubles? Whatever the cause, the result is stark:

If you voted for Trump because you believed him about immigration, you got played.

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