After Donald Trump shocked reporters Wednesday night by saying that the so-called DREAMers, young people brought to the United States by their parents without documents, should be eligible for some kind of “pathway to citizenship,” I publicly suggested that the so-called president might be in trouble, when he returned from his Davos jaunt, with the real Oval Office powers: Chief of Staff John Kelly and senior policy advisor Stephen Miller. I’ve taken to calling them #PresidentKelly and #VicePresidentMiller, because they’ve scuttled at least two potential immigration deals between Trump and a bipartisan group of Congress members working hard on the issue.
I could not imagine that pair had signed off on Trump’s dangling a citizenship opportunity for those whose potential deportation had been deferred by President Obama, an executive order Trump reversed in September. It turns out I was wrong. Trump is not in trouble with Miller and Kelly—because Trump was in fact revealing part of their hardline, nativist immigration proposal. It offers a 10-12 year pathway to citizenship for the 700,000 Dreamers, plus another million or so undocumented young people in similar straits. But in exchange, Trump’s White House is demanding that Democrats as well as pro-reform Republicans accede to proposals that will cut legal immigration by an estimated 50 percent, particularly limiting the flow of non-white immigrants, plus squander $25 billion on the mythical border wall that Mexico was supposed to pay for.
To put it another way: the Trump White House has taken the Dreamers hostage. To free them and other young immigrants like them, they’re telling Democrats (and pro-reform Republicans), you’ve got to give us the other nine million people here illegally and turn away roughly half of the legal immigrants who would otherwise be able to come here in the future.
Before we get caught up in politically handicapping this proposal, let’s call it what it is: The cowardly and overwhelmingly racist repudiation of the nation’s central animating idea, e pluribus unum. Progressives tend to resist the lure of “American exceptionalism,” for good reason. But if there’s anything exceptional about this country, it is that. Despite all of our historic mistakes and cruelties—from eradicating native people to enslaving Africans, persecuting some European immigrant groups and then Latinos and Asians; from Jim Crow to Trump’s birtherism—most Americans know we are mostly a nation of immigrants and are proud of it. This proposal takes an axe to the pillars of American immigration policy. It comes from what was once the radical, nativist fringe of the GOP, which has now, sadly, become its mainstream.
So far, Democrats and immigrant rights groups aren’t falling for it. “This is the play being run from the White House: ‘You guys are desperate for Dreamer relief. We want most of our agenda and a little bit of yours,'” Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, told the Los Angeles Times. United We Dream’s Greisa Martinez Rosas called the proposal “a white supremacist ransom note.”