DACA and border security

For months now, I thought I was seeing a welcome political compromise in the making. The possibility of such a compromise jumped out at me when President Trump indicated he admired DACA young immigrants and thought we must find a way to allow the program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to continue, perhaps with refinements and surely with proper legislative authorization from our Congress. Then the President appeared to tie his support for DACA to Congressional funding of “the wall.” There seemed then to be dangling before all, the elements of an attractive compromise on important aspects of immigration policy.

It seemed at one point that this compromise failed as the federal government shutdown amid mutual recriminations. An apparently perfect compromise had run into a perfect storm! Then with the potential big compromise in the background, a smaller compromise had to be forged to restart the government. It was a painful anxious process full of threats and continuing recriminations; democracy is messy, even indirect representative democracy is usually a struggle as long as people are truly free.

The short-term mini-compromise happened, and the overall reconciliation of views on the two leading concerns, DACA and border security, was postponed to another day, just around the corner. The big questions and the same parties are set to return to the table at the end of the first week of February. How did this potential compromise stumble and seemingly fall apart? And is it still the way forward when Congress comes to work on it again?

Given that any analyst of this apparent failure who tries to get to the bottom of things will be frustrated at times by differing factual accounts usually colored by partisan interests, let us see what public actions and widely accepted public accounts of the process of attempted compromise reveal.

First it is important that all parties in the compromise must be realistic enough to keep their eye on the support for a valid objective of their opponents. If the support is strong and the objective valid, meaning it represents at least a part of the common good, it must be respected in working out the terms of the compromise. That is easier when all parties largely share all the goals or valid objectives that are at play in the difference calling for compromise. And so the reason for optimism when this big picture compromise appeared on the horizon is that in this case there was mounting evidence that a resolution of the DACA situation favorable to the young but generally unknowingly illegal immigrants represented the disposition of the President and large numbers of Republicans. One might say that the Democrats, by and large, were there already in embracing some form of resolution favorable to the DACA immigrants. Their duty, perhaps, was to maintain an environment where this valid objective, evidently increasingly shared on both sides, could play out in a new or renewed policy.

There was another reason for hope when the President and his staff clarified what he meant by “building a wall” and softened this abrasive image. For those who care in fairness to notice, that process had already begun in the presidential campaign, but the softening was reiterated along the way and in recent days as we approached the present impasse. The President’s very effective campaign metaphor of a wall meant to great numbers of people “effective border security,” and one could almost hear the yearning across the country for that valid objective, so often proclaimed in the past only in the end to result in ineffective or unenforced policies and even scandalous lapses in border security—and now in an age of terrorism, how much more important such security is. Most Democrats, office-holders and voters, want such security and want to work with those seeking to provide it one way or another. After all, as often said in earlier debates on immigration policy, effective border security is the basis of any rational, fair and humanitarian immigration policy. So here is another largely shared valid objective for legislation.

A word more on the wall, now in a planning and testing phase, even as the President requested a portion of the overall funding necessary for this extended project. Part of softening the image of the wall was taking that very effective campaign metaphor and reminding all that the wall would not be a wall everywhere; there would be greater border security by various means including electronic detection, and there would be gates where people of both countries could go to and fro.

It is as if the voice of Robert Frost and the human heart had been heard. Frost once wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/ That wants it down.” It is as if we were hearing an echo of President Reagan’s widely acclaimed call to Russian leadership to tear down the Berlin Wall that then divided Europe. Yet Frost’s neighbor with whom he annually mended their shared wall spoke earthy common sense when Frost had him observe, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

When Trump first used the image of a “wall,” I heard a homilist on campus say that a Christian’s way was to build bridges, not walls. Then I wondered whether walls, aptly placed and greater security attained, might not often allow bridges to be built, especially if the walls were built with the awareness, that it seems both Frost and Trump wanted, that one must know what one is walling in and what one is walling out.

The image of the wall has been softened and rendered reasonable, and if too often Trump’s tone and rhetoric sounds hard and angry, it has served his purpose of capturing the long-standing frustration in the public. So what went wrong? It might be said that most of the public discussion and our discussion here had been at a very general level, border security and compassion-infused justice to DACA immigrants, but as the saying goes and many an experienced legislator knows, “the devil is in the details.”

In this case, we are limited in what we can reliably know of those details. On the large picture, however, and the seeming failure of compromise, the evidence mounts that Senators Schumer, Durbin, and the Democrats who walked in tow most of the way, had no interest in making such a compromise work because they saw the whole occasion as an opportunity to embarrass the President; they had less interest in fixing DACA than in “fixing” Trump as he was poised to celebrate the end of his first year. The budget deadline was used to attempt to get their way on various matters and to embarrass Trump, to blackmail him in order to circumvent the real legislative compromise the President had invited.

The first sign of the Schumer-Durbin intentions came, with the budgetary crisis looming, when they chose to pounce on President Trump’s alleged words in a bipartisan conference and speculate on his deeper intent (“racist”), all on the eve of the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday.

The major media were all too anxious to stoke the fires of a destructive polarization. Recriminations on all sides followed; clearly the atmosphere for compromise had been poisoned. Democrats did not want to have a compromise, they wanted to score points toward future elections, to consolidate their hold on various interest groups in the game of identity politics, to add if possible the DACA immigrants to the groups to be indebted to them. Even if the President said what he denies saying, it was not relevant to the large compromise pending, the compromise that involved DACA.

A laundry list of other demands emerged as Democrats raised issues from disaster relief to “the opioid crisis” grabbed from current headlines to try to embarrass the President. It is clear that Trump, like many, is not at his best when cornered, and he is not always a model of consistency and clarity, but this is no reason not to keep the major issue before us, to look to the present and future for a meaningful compromise that includes responsible protection of DACA immigrants and respects the security concerns nearly all Americans share. Republicans should resist the urging of some to retaliate on Democrats and to backtrack on DACA immigrants. The compromise, posed with more detail in President Trump’s State of the Union Address, can still happen.

Schumer, in trying to save face before some, moved quickly on the day after the mini-compromise to say that he was taking “the wall” off the bargaining table, taking, in effect, greater border security off the table. We see anew how much he cares for DACA immigrants as he poisons anew the atmosphere for the large compromise.

The President has brought to the table a comprehensive compromise addressing generously the DACA situation and more, as well as seeking funding for border security. Will the strident voices and haters of anything Trump touches give him, give compromise and the common good, a chance?

Walter Nicgorski is Professor Emeritus in the Program of Liberal Studies and Concurrent Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.