We know what Democrats want for Dreamers. They want a deal that gives these young unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the United States as children a permanent legal status and a path to citizenship in the only country they’ve ever known. A number of those Democrats were willing to see the government shut down over the issue, and while the majority of Senate Democrats accepted a deal to reopen the government on Monday, they did so with a promise from Republicans to vote on the issue.
What we still don’t know is what Republicans actually want for those young immigrants.
Republican leaders say they want a humane solution to the problem. Last year, in a remarkable exchange with an undocumented woman, House Speaker Paul Ryan assured her that both Congress and the president would work to keep her family intact. “What we have to do is find a way to make sure that you can get right with the law. And we’ve got to do this so that the rug doesn’t get pulled out from under you and your family gets separated. That’s the way we feel,” he said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he is “very sympathetic” to the Dreamers.
But neither leader took action to resolve their status in the wake of President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and both pressured the White House not to make concessions to Democrats when Sen. Chuck Schumer attempted to cut a deal with Trump himself. Ryan privately told McConnell that if a deal were reached, there was no guarantee he would bring it to the floor of the House for a vote.
President Trump has occasionally had kind words for the Dreamers, even as he prepared to strip them of their legal status. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” he asked on Twitter last year, one week after announcing a plan to end the DACA program. “They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own - brought in by parents at young age.”
These words are at odds with his own advisers, who more closely channel the president’s anti-immigration instincts. Stephen Miller is a staunch opponent of any deal that gives Dreamers status without implementing a host of draconian restrictions on legal immigration. And despite his reputation as the reasonable “grown-up” in the administration, White House chief of staff John Kelly is also a hard-liner on immigration, pushing the president away from any deal that doesn’t drastically limit the number of people entering the United States.
Trump’s praise for Dreamers is also at odds with his recent rhetoric blasting Democrats over the shutdown. In his attacks, the president has painted those young immigrants as threats to the safety and well-being of American citizens. “The Dems just want illegal immigrants to pour into our nation unchecked,” Trump wrote on Twitter during the weekend shutdown. This fearmongering echoes his language at an event last December warning Democrats not to shut down the government over DACA. “The Democrats are really looking at something that is very dangerous for our country,” the president said. “They are looking at shutting down. They want to have illegal immigrants; in many cases, people that we don’t want in our country. They want to have illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime.”
The president’s allies have amplified that message. A Trump campaign official praised the president last week for keeping Americans safe from “evil, illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes against lawful U.S. citizens.” And an ad from the Trump campaign portrayed Dreamers as dangerous criminals, eager to kill and destroy. Opening with images of Luis Bracamontes, an undocumented immigrant accused of killing two California deputies in 2014, the ad then urges Congress to “build the wall” and “deport criminals.” The ad treats Bracamontes as representative of undocumented immigrants, when the opposite is true. In its tone and construction, the Trump ad rivals the “Willie Horton” and “Hands” advertisements in its raw appeal to white racial fear and resentment of Hispanic immigrants.
This language has trickled down to Republican leaders. The same Paul Ryan who gave that heartfelt answer to the undocumented mother also blasted Democrats for prioritizing “illegal immigrants,” as if these young immigrants are responsible for their situation.
Republicans say they want a solution for Dreamers. The actions they’ve taken and the rhetoric they’ve used suggests the reverse: that they’re either indifferent to the plight of these young people or that they want them deported along with other unauthorized immigrants. But these positions are unpopular with a public that is sympathetic to the Dreamers, and so Republican leaders dance a two-step, talking as if they are open to negotiations but avoiding—and even blocking—any actual resolution.
Perhaps, instead of playing this game, Republican leaders should just have the courage of their convictions and say what is increasingly obvious. They don’t want a solution for the Dreamers, and they don’t actually plan to accept one.