Young people on the Mexico side of the border near the steel fence in Tijuana, Mexico (CNS photo/Jorge Duenes, Reuters)

Luis Bracamontes, an undocumented immigrant, killed two California policemen in 2014. Bracamontes was a thoroughgoing bad guy, a drug dealer who had twice been deported from the United States. His second deportation was facilitated by Joe Arpaio, then the loudmouthed Republican sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona. President Donald Trump used Bracamontes to rally his base. “Democrats let [Bracamontes] into the country,” and “Democrats let him stay here.” Even Fox News, after running a midterm campaign ad featuring footage of Bracamontes, was shamed into dropping it.

The immigration debate is tangled with ironies. For one thing, despite Trump’s fulminations, the king of deportations was Barack Obama. During his first term, Obama was mostly focused on health care, but in his second term he tried to make quiet arrangements with Republicans. He struck a deal with them that involved a major upgrade of the government’s two immigration enforcement arms—the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), whose writ goes just to the border, and the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which tracks down undocumented immigrants already in the country. The new hardware and staffing also allowed for a sharp escalation in both agencies’ tactics.

Obama was by no means anti-immigration. In general, he thought that adding working families strengthened the country. But his primary objective was to protect the “Dreamers”—about eight hundred thousand young people who had been brought to the country as children by undocumented parents and had grown up here. Legislation for the Dreamers was first introduced during the George W. Bush administration, with strong support on both sides of the aisle. To qualify, the Dreamers had to be at least eighteen, and they had to have entered the country before they turned sixteen and resided in the United States for at least four consecutive years. They also had to have graduated from high school or passed a GED, joined the military, or enrolled in a higher-education program.

Immigration policy is fiendishly difficult, especially when families are involved. The Trump and Sessions no-exception rule only makes a bad situation worse.

Early in his administration, Trump made sympathetic noises about the Dreamers, as almost anyone would. The ones who came as young children, who didn’t get in trouble with the law, and who had parents who paid taxes, are getting a raw deal. Anecdotally, many of the Dreamers are weak in their native languages, and are facing a traumatic return to an alien country.

More ironies: the implicit quid pro quo of tougher immigration enforcement in exchange for special treatment for promising young people was a fraud. The Republicans got the tougher enforcement they were demanding, but the Dreamers were left empty-handed. Trump’s sympathy for the Dreamers lasted only as long as he could exploit their plight—the new quid pro quo for Dreamer citizenship is to fund Trump’s beloved Wall. (Trump insists the Wall is coming along nicely, although no one can find it, and there is little chance of its being funded by the new Democratic House of Representatives.)

Fortuitously, two federal-appeal suits on behalf of the Dreamers were recently decided in their favor. For the time being, the deportations are suspended. The two appeals circuits that issued those rulings, however, are among the most liberal, and Trump is pushing hard to bring a Dreamers case to the Supreme Court in the current session. With the addition of Brett Kavanaugh to the bench, there is a good chance that the Dreamers will lose. The attitude of the current administration toward immigrants was the hardest that could be conceived, involving forcible separation of children from their parents. Jeff Sessions, the former attorney general, and Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security, announced a no-exception policy: an adult immigrant who did not go through a sanctioned asylum port of entry would be considered a criminal and could be imprisoned. Repeated offenses could draw up to ten-year sentences. Because federal prisons cannot accept children, the children of those immigrants had to be separated from their parents, with little regard for human decency. Around two thousand children were separated from their parents, and some were sent to another part of the country.

In a press conference, Nielsen smarmily insisted that there had been no policy changes since the Obama administration. In fact, the contrast is striking. In the previous administration, first priority was given to known criminals, who were “removed” from the country; second priority was given to the most recent immigrants, who were “returned,” ideally before they had built an in-country social network. That dovetailed with Border Patrol protocols to discourage illegal crossings. According to those protocols, which remain in force, every apprehended border-crosser is fingerprinted and traced for a criminal record, and about a fifth are remanded to the local authorities. The rest of the would-be immigrants are subjected to meaningful penalties. Many Mexican nationals who enter the United States illegally also have an application for a U.S. green card. Being caught in an attempt at illegal entry adds five years to the waiting period.

Immigration policy is fiendishly difficult, especially when families are involved. The Trump and Sessions no-exception rule only makes a bad situation worse. The pleasure they seem to take in the process is disgusting.

Charles R. Morris’s most recent book is The Rabble of Dead Money, a history of the Great Depression (PublicAffairs).

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Published in the December 14, 2018 issue: View Contents
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