Democrats, Make a Deal With Trump to Protect Dreamers

An installation by the French artist JR at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The six-month window to arrive at a permanent replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is about to close, and Congress is scrambling to reach a deal acceptable to the White House.

But the president isn’t making it easy. On last Tuesday, Mr. Trump called for “a bipartisan bill of love” and promised not to quibble about details, as long as it contained funding for “the wall.” On Thursday, he suggested that an acceptable deal will restrict immigration from “shithole countries” in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

Democrats are piqued, but they must not let Mr. Trump’s incoherence and prejudice keep them from signing on to a deal — even one that includes wall funding. The future of nearly 800,000 Dreamers — young undocumented immigrants — is on the line. Those of us who care about our innocent friends and neighbors brought to America as children won’t gamble with their lives.

Democrats are feeling bullish. With a midterm wave, the House seems like a lock. Even a Senate majority now seems within reach. With spirits so high, some Democrats will be tempted to indulge in best-case-scenario thinking.

In an optimistic light, the danger of failing on a DACA deal might seem relatively slight. After all, a Democratic Congress could block funds for deportations. A recent district court decision suggests that DACA could be kept alive until 2020 by tangling it up in the courts. And more than a quarter of Dreamers live in deep blue California, which declared itself a “sanctuary state.” Politically, Democrats can pin the failure of a legislative fix on Mr. Trump and the Republican majorities, and could possibly do even better in the midterms by keeping the issue on the table.

This kind of hopeful thinking is seductive but dangerous. When the legal protection of 800,000 people is at stake, Democrats need to expect the worst, even while hoping for the best. That means assuming that if DACA expires without a fix, the administration will be aggressive about deportations, the Senate will remain Republican, judicial stopgaps will fail, a Republican will win the White House in 2020, hundreds of thousands will be pushed into the shadows and many tens of thousands will be rounded up, detained and ejected from the country.

This dark timeline might be unlikely, but unlikely things happen. (Donald Trump, I’ll remind you, is president of the United States.)

So a deal that includes money for the wall ought to be a no-brainer for Democrats. Every viable proposal under discussion includes a hefty “border security” element, but not any of them include a literal solid wall spanning the entire southern border. Last week, Kellyanne Conway, a White House counselor, said that Mr. Trump understands that “part of it will be the physical wall, part of it is better technology, part of it is also fencing.”

The wall Mr. Trump promised isn’t going to materialize, and he’s not going to insist on it. Of course, Mr. Trump will say that new border security enhancements constitute a wall. But Democrats can vote for them without following suit.

Democrats should also be willing to make reasonable concessions on family reunification (so-called chain migration) and the diversity lottery (intended to bring immigrants from underrepresented countries). Shifting visas from certain family-reunification to merit-based categories should be similarly tolerable.

But Democrats should reject a DACA compromise that would reduce the overall level of immigration. Immigrants yet to arrive matter too. Consistent worst-case-scenario thinking means assuming new legislation will set immigration policy for the foreseeable future. A DACA fix that cuts legal immigration could eventually deprive at least as many people as are currently covered by DACA from ever having a shot at the American dream.

Mr. Trump’s “shithole countries” comment came in response to a bipartisan proposal to cut the diversity lottery program in half and reallocate those visas to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries. That proposal ought to be a model for Democrats — the president’s tantrum notwithstanding. It gives ground on the diversity lottery, but doesn’t lose those visas, shifting them instead to merit-based categories, and refuses to permit the reorganization of American immigration policy around harebrained bigotry.

Mr. Trump chose to put a gun to Dreamers’ heads, but Democrats shouldn’t pay any ransom. Keeping nonracist principles of admission and the current level of legal immigration ought to be the Democrats’ lines in the sand.

But Democrats should be willing to pay some ransom. Ceding any ground on immigration policy to a nakedly nativist president can seem outrageous. However, refusing to cut a reasonable, if painful, deal is risky and irresponsible. When Democrats finally do retake the reins of power, they can do immigration reform on their terms. But insisting on those terms now puts too many innocent people in harm’s way.

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