Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Trump administration is not very good at following rules. In a 5-4 decision, the court said no to Trump’s effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has enabled more than 600,000 “Dreamers” who were born abroad and brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the U.S. The administration had argued that DACA was a stopgap measure by President Barack Obama and that Trump had authority to “wind down” the program.
The opinion strongly suggests the administration might have achieved its goal, had it sought to do so in a less slapdash manner. But Trump’s Department of Homeland Security botched it. As Roberts writes, “The dispute before the Court is not whether DHS may rescind DACA. All parties agree that it may. The dispute is instead primarily about the procedure the agency followed in doing so.”
Trump can try again, and next time do it right. Yet the ruling arguably leaves him better off — provided he has the capacity to recognize his good luck. Since the Dreamers are blameless for their status, having crossed the border or overstayed visas as children, they have always posed a special challenge for Stephen Miller, the White House adviser who crafts Trump’s most virulent anti-immigration policies.
“What part of illegal don’t you understand?” — the standard MAGA refrain — may not be sophisticated philosophy. Nevertheless, it provides a rationale for policies aimed at deporting undocumented immigrants regardless of complicating social, economic or human factors. But that reasoning can’t justify removing Dreamers, who arrived in the U.S. through no fault of their own. Many of them know little or nothing of their countries of origin. Deporting them is not only inhumane, it’s economically and socially counterproductive. The U.S. has invested millions in their education, and they are integrated into workplaces, communities and families. Deporting them imposes sizable costs, but no discernible benefits — unless you think it’s beneficial to make America more White.
Trump has long handled the Dreamers issue with tactical incoherence. “Dreamers should rest easy,” he said in 2017. A few weeks later, a Trump immigration official testified in Congress that “no population is off the table” for deportation. “If you are in this country illegally, and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried,” said Thomas Homan, then the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Trouble is, Dreamers are extremely popular. In an April poll by Hart Research, conducted for the liberal Center for American Progress, 72% of voters supported continuing DACA until Congress can legislate a permanent fix. Only 28% supported terminating the program. A CBS News poll taken May 29 to June 2 found an astonishing 85% of Americans want Dreamers to be allowed to remain in the U.S. if they meet requirements.
Given polling like that, Trump has been reluctant to attack Dreamers directly. Instead, he has sought to use them as hostages. If Congress would agree to massive immigration restrictions, cutting legal immigration in half, making asylum more difficult to obtain and providing more funds for a border wall, Trump would agree to release the hostages.
This ploy was never likely to succeed — Democrats in Congress, mostly with the backing of immigration advocates, have simply dared Trump to attack.
Now, with the nation riled by police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests, with Trump’s culture war losing ground and his political base on the defensive, it’s becoming harder to tell who is the hostage. As David Frum noted, Trump’s decision to change the date of his Tulsa arena event, from the racially freighted Juneteenth (June 19) to June 20, is evidence that his campaign views escalated racial conflict as newly dangerous terrain.
No doubt, Trump’s most emphatic MAGA supporters would like to see Dreamers deported. But if popular revulsion inspired the campaign’s tactical retreat on racial aggression against blacks, it’s hard to see how Trump can launch a renewed assault on Dreamers, who are predominantly Mexican (and some 27,000 of whom are health care workers or support staff). The same logic holds. “A multiracial majority hates Trump’s divisiveness, hates the racial incitement he traffics in, and hates the cruelty to please his White-grievance voters,” said veteran immigration advocate Frank Sharry in an email. “There will be lots of solidarity between BLM and United We Dream activists.”
Indeed, the potential for Dreamers to ride the lengthening coattails of Black Lives Matter, and inspire increased activism by Hispanic voters, is a calamitous scenario for Republicans in Arizona, Florida, Texas and other places where Hispanic voters have the capacity to decide elections, including the presidential race. Trump’s best option is to take his lumps and keep his mouth shut.