It was too much to hope for that President Trump would actually honor the informal deal that he cut with congressional Democrats to offer permanent legal
status to DREAMers (named after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) in exchange for some "reasonable" immigration enforcement measures. After all, these are immigrants who, through no fault of their own, were brought to this country without proper authorization as children. But the White House's 70-odd list of demands released over the weekend under the influence of ultra-restrictionist White House aide Stephen Miller reads more like a ransom note than a good-faith opening bid for an eventual compromise.
It'll criminalize far more immigrants than it'll legalize DREAMers, defeating the whole purpose of the exercise. Should President Trump not back down, Democrats will have little reason to continue to negotiate.
Last month, President Trump abruptly ended the Obama-era DACA (Deferred Action Against Childhood Arrivals) program that gave qualified DREAMers a reprieve from deportation and told Congress that it had six months to legalize them permanently before he starts deporting them in March when the first round of DACA protection expires. Basically, he set up a ticking time bomb to extract maximum leverage to negotiate tough border security measures. But the failure of Republicans to repeal and replace ObamaCare has made Trump desperate for a legislative victory so he had been showing a new willingness to negotiate with Democrats.
But Miller—the White House's sole remaining nativist after Breitbart chief Stephen Bannon was booted out—wants not just enhanced border security but to stop immigration of every kind: legal and illegal, employment and family-based, refugees and asylum seekers. The Daily Beast reports that he worked with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a fellow ultra-restrictionist, to put Trump on the spot by working up a sweeping anti-immigration demand list.
Expectedly, this list, that the White House had no choice but to embrace to avoid losing face with its nativist base, doubles down on the standard restrictionist demands such as more funding for a border wall—which Trump had indicated to Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) he'd be willing to skip—and 10,000 more border patrol agents. In addition, Miller and Cotton want more "interior enforcement"—which includes not just hunting down and deporting unauthorized aliens in the country—but also mandatory E-verify that would require employers to check the work authorization status of every new employee, citizen and non-citizen, against a federal database.
But the big poison pill is this:
Of the 11 million unauthorized aliens in the country, about two million are DREAMers and 4.5 million are visa overstays who entered the country legally but whose visas expired (the rest entered the country without proper papers). Currently, these latter folks are guilty of a civil infraction akin to an unpaid parking ticket. They can be deported for it but can't be thrown in jail, which is a good thing since it is very easy for people to fall out of status given America's slow and screwed up immigration bureaucracy that makes the DMV look like a picture of efficiency.
But Miller and Cotton would make overstaying a visa a criminal offense and disbar visa overstays from any immigration "benefit" for three years if they overstayed for 180 days and 10 years if one year. This means that if these folks marry, say, an American citizen, they would still be barred from applying for a green card or even a fiancé or spouse visa. Ditto for a student, investor, or any other kind of visa.
Basically, in exchange for legalizing two million DREAMers, Miller and Cotton would consign twice as many visa overstays to permanent illegality by taking away practically every option for regaining their legal status, exacerbating the very problem that the current exercise is trying to solve.
But there's more.
Miller and Cotton would also criminalize "baseless" asylum claims to allegedly discourage people without provable claims of persecution from "abusing" America's asylum laws. But people fleeing gangs or state violence can't always amass documentary evidence before escaping. Yet judges would not only be able to reject their claims but also prosecute them and possibly fine them and throw them in jail. In other words, Miller and Cotton want to threaten people trying to escape tyrannical regimes with even more tyranny.
But to add insult to injury, the two also want to pair any relief to DREAMers with cuts in legal immigration and to bar Americans from sponsoring their parents, adult children, and siblings. They claim that they want to replace America's family-based system with a Canadian-style merit-based one. If that were the case, they'd accompany the cuts in family-based categories with increases in skills-based ones, but they don't. In fact, under Cotton's plan, legal immigration to the country would be slashed in half over 10 years.
All of this shows that restrictionist hardliners are holding DREAMers hostage to enact a draconian wish list to fundamentally—and comprehensively—reform America's immigration system. But that is precisely what a standalone DREAMer bill was intended to avoid doing in the first place. Its whole point was to focus on giving relief to a small subset of the undocumented population who have lived in this country practically their entire lives and whom virtually no one is in favor of deporting—while tabling all the other controversial immigration issues that have torpedoed virtually every reform effort over the last decade and a half.
So what should Democrats do if Trump can't control Miller and negotiate in good faith?
Well, they could take a page from some of their conservative colleagues. Restrictionist Republicans such as Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.), leader of the increasingly misnamed Freedom Caucus, are threatening to shut down the government in December by refusing to raise the debt ceiling if their anti-immigration demands are not met. (It is ironic that a faction that used to threaten a government shutdown in the name of cutting spending and fiscal responsibility, something that I actually supported once, is now threatening to do so if billions of taxpayer dollars are not spent on a pointless wall.)
Democrats should follow suit and threaten a government shutdown of their own if Republicans don't pass a clean DREAMer bill. Their support has been crucial for the Trump administration to fund the government thus far.
Miller and his ilk want to negotiate while holding a gun to the heads of DREAMers. The only way Democrats will get them to back off is by sticking to theirs.
This column originally appeared in The Week