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Opinion: Once Again on Immigration, a Victory for the All-Or-Nothings

With DACA tied up in the courts, the urgency for Congress to act is gone

The inability of President Donald Trump and Democrats to compromise on DACA and border security has given hard-liners on both sides of the immigration debate a win, Cardinal Brown writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The inability of President Donald Trump and Democrats to compromise on DACA and border security has given hard-liners on both sides of the immigration debate a win, Cardinal Brown writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When President Donald Trump travels to California later this month to view the prototype designs for a new border wall, perhaps he will take a moment to think about what could have been. Because as things stand, those eight 30-foot-long samples are the only walls likely to be built.

Trump could have had his wall. He had numerous opportunities to get it, dating all the way back to the “Chuck and Nancy” deal last fall. All he had to do was agree to something he says he wants — a permanent replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program he canceled in September.

There was fleeting hope that a temporary DACA extension and limited border wall funding could be included in the omnibus negotiations wrapping up by next week, but that deal, too, seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Trump, majorities in Congress, and the American people fully support a permanent DACA solution. So why have scores of so-called deadlines for action passed, with no likely deal on the horizon?

For one, with DACA tied up in the courts, Congress thinks the urgency is gone. I suspect DACA recipients would say otherwise: Once the courts rule, the program could be shut down immediately, throwing their lives into even more chaos. Even those who applied for an extension after the court ruling can’t legally work, may have their schooling interrupted, and could face deportation proceedings while they wait, perhaps up to five months, for approval.

Watch: Trump — Democrats ‘Nowhere to Be Found’ On DACA

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So here we stand, yet again, with attempts at an immigration deal failing to get enough votes, and Congress and the administration poised to do nothing more than point fingers at each other and argue that it’s the other party’s fault.

As Shakespeare said, “A plague o’ both your houses!”

It frankly doesn’t matter who gets the blame. If both sides had been willing to set aside some of what they said they most wanted, a deal could have been struck. If Trump had put off his changes to the legal immigration system — ending the Diversity Visa Program and curtailing family-sponsored immigration, the most controversial of his four “pillars” — he could have fixed DACA and had his wall. If Democrats and advocates had leaned into the border security issue earlier (knowing that it was a boondoggle), and perhaps committed to subsequent discussions of legal immigration changes, we could have seen a path to citizenship for many young people.

Or maybe not. That’s because there is a small, but very vocal, political minority on both sides for whom doing nothing outweighs doing something. Their all-or-nothing wishes have been realized.

On one side are those who never supported “amnesty,” and were only inclined to go along if they could get the significant reductions in immigration they really wanted. They also knew the only way to get those reductions, over the objections of Democrats and most Republicans, was to attach them to DACA legislation. If that scuttled any agreement, they wouldn’t have to hold their noses at amnesty, and would be no worse off. In fact, the failure of lawmakers to cut an admittedly hard deal gives these restrictionists the victory of keeping the status quo.

On the other side is the group for whom no deal is better than a “bad” deal — one that concedes to the enforcement demands of the other side while failing to protect everyone deemed deserving of benefit. But without enough compromise, no deal always wins.

This exact scenario has played out often over the last two decades. Yet Americans want our immigration system changed. Poll after poll shows a lot of support for a system that allows immigrants who want to work in the United States to stay while ensuring that more abide by the rules than go around them.

Americans are willing to provide a path to legalization to those who have been here and want to “get right with the law.” They want to see a new immigration system that helps America, helps immigrants become Americans, and reflects the respect for the law that is an American value.

But mostly, they are just sick and tired of absolutely nothing getting done. They don’t care about who’s to blame. They will blame both sides until people are able to come together, agree to set aside the most extreme positions, and get what the country needs: a bipartisan new start on immigration. The impetus is still there.

Theresa Cardinal Brown is BPC’s director of immigration and cross-border policy. She served as a policy adviser at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and DHS under the Bush and Obama administrations, including as director of the Immigration Legislation Task Force in the DHS Office of Policy. She also was director of immigration and border policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and associate director of business immigration advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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