Nancy Pelosi

How Nancy Pelosi Set an Immigration Trap for Republicans

She is dividing Republicans while uniting Democrats.


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a Machiavellian genius. She took the rift between congressional Republicans and President

Nancy Pelosi

Donald Trump on immigration and turned it into a canyon-sized chasm, weakening the GOP before the 2020 elections. At the same time, she teed up an immigration bill in the House that could bring her party together right before the 2020 elections.

Trump this afternoon vetoed a congressional resolution to stop him from declaring a national emergency on the southern border and using it to raid unauthorized funds to build his wall. The Republican-controlled Senate didn't want to have to vote on the resolution. But once Pelosi successfully pushed it in the Democratic-controlled House, parliamentary rules left Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell no choice but to bring it up for a vote.

This put Republicans in a difficult position: Whether to vote for their principles (don't laugh!) and stand up against their president's power grab, or give up their principles and obey the president to enlist his support—or at least not incite his wrath—before the 2020 elections. Ultimately, only 12 Republicans joined the 49 Senate Democrats to vote against him (and only one of those, Maine's Susan Collins was up for re-election next year).* All the rest fell in line (including, disappointingly, Ben Sasse, that alleged evangelist on behalf of the Constitution).

Neither chamber has enough votes to override Trump's veto, but prevailing wasn't the point for Pelosi. She wanted to enjoy the spectacle of conservative agonizing.

Even as Republicans were contemplating how best to negotiate that trap, Pelosi was busy preparing the Dream and Promise Act. The bill would allow 2.5 million people—"Dreamers" and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders—to obtain permanent legal status. Dreamers are people who have grown up in America after they were brought to the country as minors without proper authorization. TPS holders are folks who have permission to live in America on a temporary but renewable basis because their countries are engulfed in political turmoil (El Salvador, Honduras, Liberia) or embroiled in a natural disaster (Haiti).

Both these groups have become vulnerable to deportation under Trump. He scrapped the Obama-era DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Renewals) program, which gave eligible Dreamers temporary legal status and work authorization. Meanwhile, he has pledged not to renew current TPS holders' status once it lapses, which will force 98 percent of them to leave.

There are currently about 320,000 TPS holders in the country. The bill would allow many of them to apply for green cards right away, something that they can't do as TPS holders unless they marry an American or find an employer who can sponsor them for an H-1B visa. Once they've spent five years on a green card, they become eligible for citizenship.

Dreamers would have to jump through more hoops, on the theory that, unlike TPS holders, they are in the country illegally and should have to do more to earn their green cards. Those Dreamers who arrived in America before the age of 18, have led a crime-free life, and are working toward a GED or an equivalent would be able to apply for "conditional permanent residency." After 10 years on that status, they'd be able to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship.

The bill would cover all the 700,000 DACA beneficiaries. But there are 3.6 million Dreamers in the country, and so well over a million won't be covered. This makes it a pretty moderate bill.

Why didn't Pelosi go further? Because she wants to make it easy for moderate Democrats to support it. At the same time, there's no downside for more radical Democrats in embracing it—it's a clean bill, without any of the border-enforcement poison pills that Trump was demanding as his price for legalizing Dreamers. In short, it'll allow Democrats to mobilize their base without alienating others.

Meanwhile, although the Supreme Court declined to take up DACA in this year, it might well do so in fall and issue a decision sometime in 2020. And should the Supreme Court uphold Trump then—which is entirely possible, given that scrapping DACA is quite likely within the presidential prerogative—Democrats will have something cued up to replace it and prevent Dreamers from being deported en masse. If Republicans scream "amnesty" at that point, which they will, they will come across as heartless monsters, especially since 82 percent of Americans favor the legalization of Dreamers.

That isn't a good image for voters to have in their heads just before they schlep to the polls. But that's what Pelosi has set up.

*Correction: The piece had originally noted that Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina had voted for the resolution to censure the President. Apparently, after penning an oped in the Washington Post opposing Trump's executive order, he switched his vote last minute. The error is regretted.