More Than Half a Loaf

Trump’s State of the Union Speech Should Unite Republicans on Immigration Deal

Look—it’s a negotiation. Nobody gets everything they want. But Trump and the GOP can both get a lot out of the deal he laid out in his address.


Win McNamee/Getty

During Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, Donald Trump expressly spelled out his “bipartisan approach for immigration reform.”

The Trump framework for an immigration deal won’t make everyone happy, but it should at least keep Republicans happy. The fact that it hasn’t tells us all we need to know about why Ronald Reagan was the last guy to be able to do anything of consequence on this issue.

In case you missed it, Trump’s proposed plan would allow for a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, in return for $25 billion for what he referred to on Tuesday night as a “great wall on the Southern border” and an end to chain migration and the diversity lottery, which he called “a program that randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit, or the safety of our people.”

Before we get into the concerns, it’s worth taking a moment to clear up some confusion.

“Chain migration is not a legal term,” explains Vox’s Dara Lind, “but is a sociological one. The debate over use of the term now should be honest about the fact that its origins were not propagandistic.” Pro-immigration activists would prefer the term “family reunification,” but that is still more misleading.

“Under the current broken system,” Trump said on Tuesday night, “a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” Under the new framework he is proposing, immigrants would still be allowed to sponsor their minor children and spouses, just not parents, aunts, uncles, etc.

As was the case with the short-lived government shutdown, Republicans seem to have found a way to take issues off the table that hurt them with the general public (DREAMers), while forcing Democrats to cling to provisions that are popular only with their own liberal base (in this case, the notion that an immigrant should be able to sponsor his aunt).

But this won’t matter much if the plan is attacked from the right. So why are some conservatives criticizing Trump’s plan? As far as I can tell, there are two primary reasons.

First, some conservatives like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Steve King (R-IA) have a fundamental aversion to providing a pathway to citizenship, which they derisively call “amnesty.”

What they fail to see is that merely legalizing DACA kids (without granting them the chance to become citizens) would be a much worse idea. Doing so would create second-class citizens, making it even less likely they would assimilate into American culture. It would also serve to perpetuate this issue, allowing Democrats to continue using the plight of DREAMers as a cudgel with which to beat Republicans. If Republicans are going to let DREAMers stay in America, shouldn’t they at least get the benefit of taking this issue off the table? Why allow it to linger?

The second (and, I think, more serious) concern being raised is that the number of immigrants eligible for citizenship in the Trump framework is larger than had been anticipated. 

In his remarks Tuesday, Trump noted that his framework “generously offers a path to citizenship for 1.8 million illegal immigrants who were brought here by their parents at a young age,” a number “that covers almost three times more people than the previous administration.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Though more than the nearly 700,000 DACA kids that restrictionists like Mark Krikorian would prefer, this should still be viewed as a small price to pay for curtailing “chain migration” for the 10 million-plus undocumented immigrants who are here (and the many millions more who might follow).

Republicans must realize that this deal still has to be good enough to pressure Democrats into supporting it—which means that they aren’t going to get everything they want. Trump is already driving a hard bargain here. Sen. Chuck Schumer has essentially declared his plan dead on arrival.

Compromise means nobody gets exactly what they want, and in his speech Tuesday night, President Trump described his framework “a down-the-middle compromise, and one that will create a safe, modern, and lawful immigration system.”

Not everyone on the right will agree with every aspect of this framework, but the fact that Sen. Tom Cotton is voicing support for Trump’s framework should be enough to put restrictionists at ease.

And while immigration restrictionists should support this deal based on what I have just outlined, I believe that conservatives who supported prior immigration reform efforts should also support this framework.

The one huge gaping hole I see here is that this framework does nothing to address what to do about millions of undocumented immigrants who do not qualify as DREAMers.

The good news is that this framework can serve as a sort of no-risk trial. If the U.S. government truly succeeds at securing the border in a demonstrable way, it will be easier for us to persuade Americans to also treat the millions of undocumented immigrants still hiding in the shadows with compassion.

So can this really get done? If history is a predictor, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Still, the big reason this has a chance, believe it or not, is Donald Trump. Trump’s imprimatur (should he actually stick with a plan and not waver) would provide cover for a deal that might otherwise get blown up by the conservative base (see 2013, when the House wouldn’t take up the immigration bill that 14 Republican senators supported).

Past immigration deals also included tough security measures, but conservative voters never trusted that they would actually be implemented or enforced. George W. Bush thought family values extended to both sides of the Rio Grande, so he couldn’t be trusted. John McCain was never trusted, either. Marco Rubio? You saw what Breitbart did to him. The only guy who has the credibility with the base to actually grant amnesty is the same guy who called Mexicans rapists.

“For over 30 years,” Trump reminded us on Tuesday, “Washington has tried and failed to solve this problem. This Congress can be the one that finally makes it happen.”

It may well be that Trump is uniquely suited to actually passing immigration reform. Just as Richard Nixon, who had established his hawkish Cold War bona fides over years, was the only president who could go to China, it may be that the only president who can go up against Ted Cruz and Steve King and come out on top with the base is Donald Trump.

For this reason, I’m holding out hope that we might finally be able to do something for these kids. I know this may make me naïve, but I’m holding out hope.

Americans are dreamers, too.