Trump's Buck Passing on Immigration

The president’s decision to try to shift responsibility for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to Congress could turn out to be one of his politically shrewder moves.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

It wasn’t exactly a profile in courage, but it may turn out to be one of Donald Trump’s politically shrewder bits of buck-passing.

In moving to “wind down” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, aka DACA, Trump did not make the Tuesday announcement himself.  Rather, he handed the axe to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a man devout in his belief that the path of righteousness is paved with the hardest of hardline immigration policies.

Indeed, if Trump’s goal was to avoid facing the general public with his DACA decision yet remind conservative fans of his anti-immigrant leanings, Sessions was the right messenger for the job. As the AG drawled and stammered through a mini-lecture on the threat that the 800,000 DACA “Dreamers” brought to the U.S. as children pose to the rule of law, public safety, and cultural assimilation, you could almost hear immigration advocates grinding their teeth—and Democrats licking their chops. The second that Sessions stopped speaking, my inbox swelled with press releases from DACA supporters slamming the administration’s decision as “cruel,” “mean-spirited,” “short-sighted,” “reprehensible,” and “destructive ” and calling on Congress to stop the madness before the program officially expires in March.

All of which suits Trump just fine—politically at least. (Who’s to say how his “great heart” is weathering this development?) The president was in an awkward spot with DACA.  Republican attorneys general in multiple states were threatening legal action against the program, if he didn’t kill it by September 5. And his nativist base—pretty much the only folks who still slather him with the adulation he requires—was growing frustrated by his DACA foot-dragging. (It’s bad enough Mexico is being mulish about not funding the wall!) And despite all Trump’s sympathetic clucking about “Dreamers,” there was no way a pol who rose to power on the dark wings of nativism could let this issue slide.

And so Trump did what Trump does best: tossed responsibility for all this unpleasantness into someone else’s lap. Instead of ending DACA immediately, he left the program to fade away, with no new applications accepted as of Tuesday and existing protections gradually expiring starting March 6. In a statement issued after Sessions’ speech, Trump clarified: “In effect I am not going to just cut DACA off, but rather provide a window of opportunity for Congress to finally act.” Or, as he so eloquently tweeted Tuesday morning: “Congress, get ready to do your job - DACA!”

Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, welcome to the hot seat. Again.

Is POTUS trying to have it both ways: playing to his base’s worst impulses while absolving himself of responsibility for upending DACA recipients’ lives? Absolutely. That said, the guy has a point: It is way past time for Congress to pull up its big-boy pants and tackle America’s broken immigration system. Lawmakers’ pathetic, enduring failure to do just that is precisely what has necessitated stopgap programs like DACA. As with so many vital issues, the political risks of thoughtful debate, much less action, have consistently proved prohibitively high. (Just ask Florida Senator Marco Rubio.)

Whatever his motivation, Trump is now trying to back Congress into a corner—and even impose a deadline of sorts. (Lawmakers do nothing without a deadline.) Come March, Dreamers will start becoming subject to deportation. And while mass round-ups seem unlikely, these young folks will at the very least lose their work permits and get driven into the underground economy. But from this day forward, any ugliness that befalls DACA recipients will result in Trump’s pointing his Twitter finger at Congress and bellowing in all-caps: THIS IS ON YOU GUYS!

After all, Trump has done his part, right? While many conservatives slam DACA as a soft-on-illegals “amnesty” program stealing jobs from U.S. citizens, others condemn it on the more bloodless grounds of presidential overreach. As the argument goes, it’s not that these critics have anything against DACA recipients per se; they simply cannot stomach that Obama, in their view, undermined the rule of law and disrespected the separation of powers with the 2012 founding of DACA. The degree to which such rationalizations are rubbish is immaterial. They are a useful political weapon Trump has been happy to wield. And if, in the name of restoring the balance of power, he can blame Congress for whatever happens next, all the better.

At this point, it is anyone’s guess what will happen next. Sure, many lawmakers would love to hammer out permanent protections for DACA recipients. But the idea that any bill dealing with immigration, be it broad or targeted, can zip through Congress without a tidal wave of blood and fury is madness. (Already, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is lobbying to tie DACA protections to massive cuts in legal immigration.)

And that’s before one factors in all the other urgent issues facing Congress, from authorizing Hurricane Harvey relief to raising the debt ceiling to reauthorizing the Children’s Health Care Program to pretending they’re going to overhaul the tax code. With so much on the docket, lawmakers could easily find themselves without the time or bandwidth to do much of anything about DACA recipients.

Such a failure could prove exceptionally awkward for certain legislators, particularly with the program expiring smack dab in the middle of midterms. But Trump doesn’t really see that as his problem. (Just imagine the party POTUS would throw if Paul Ryan lost the Speaker’s gavel over this.) His views on immigrants have been blindingly clear from Day 1. Now, he is looking to force lawmakers to put up or shut up.

Trump is no political mastermind. But if he somehow succeeds in pressuring Congress to act—and, admittedly, that’s a pretty big if—it will be a glittering testament to the powers of presidential weaseliness.