The Politics of the DACA Fix

Donald Trump tours a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Yuma, Ariz., in August. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Republicans will come out ahead only if they stick together.

President Trump’s decision to cancel DACA, an executive-branch program giving work permits to illegal immigrants who arrived as minors, is a huge gamble. If the Republican caucus tries to pass a stand-alone fix along the lines of the DREAM Act (which would give full legal status to those covered by DACA), it could be in a lose-lose situation: Either it will succeed and infuriate the GOP base, or it will fail, as numerous attempts to pass the DREAM Act have in the past. If, however, the caucus unifies around a deal trading the DREAM Act for center-right immigration reforms, it could advance conservative policy goals and strengthen its political hand.

Attempting to pass a stand-alone DREAM Act is a massive political trap for Republicans. If the bill succeeds, it could cause a backlash from the Republican grassroots, who would perceive Republicans in Congress as putting a greater priority on amnestying illegal immigrants than on increasing enforcement or reforming legal immigration so that it is more sustainable. Activists might be particularly piqued to see the DREAM Act glide to passage while the reform of the Affordable Care Act languishes. Passing a stand-alone DREAM Act could also fuel more rancorous primary battles and potentially suppress turnout in 2018, especially in crucial battles. For instance, if Arizona’s Jeff Flake hopes to survive reelection, he’ll need a substantial turnout from the Republican base in both the primary and general elections.

But trying to pass the DREAM Act and failing would invite its own political dangers. Polling shows that many Americans are open to granting legal status to those who came illegally as minors. The media, with an assist from some Republicans, will provide a drumbeat of stories showing the plight of especially sympathetic “DREAMers.” In certain key races, the failure of the DREAM Act could be a wedge issue. Especially now that the president rather than the courts has ended DACA, Republicans own the decision, which puts more political pressure on them to find a replacement.

Thus, a stand-alone DREAM Act hurts Republicans whether it succeeds or fails. In a politically polarized time, depressing the grassroots probably harms the GOP’s midterm chances more than disappointing some swing voters does, but both inflict a cost.

Perhaps the surest way to mitigate these political dangers is to bundle the DREAM Act with immigration reforms that measurably advance conservative goals on immigration. What would these conservative goals be? One would be improving immigration enforcement. But an enforcement-only approach to immigration misses the broader importance of reforming the structure of the legal-immigration system. As Reihan Salam has suggested, conservatives should try to reform the immigration system so that it helps immigrants become equal partners in American society and ameliorates rather than exacerbates social divisions. Revising the legal-immigration system so that it prioritizes skills and the nuclear family would seem a crucial step in that direction.

If Republicans can package the DREAM Act with immigration policies that appeal to populist voters, they can reinvigorate their base without alienating swing voters. Moreover, they would show that…

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