President Donald Trump says he is optimistic a deal can be struck to shield "Dreamers," the young undocumented immigrants whose lives he put in jeopardy by stripping them of work permits and deportation protection, beginning March 5. His price, and that of many Republicans, is up to $33 billion in border security measures, including Trump’s "beautiful" wall.
If that’s the deal — not one freighted with a laundry list of other items on the GOP wish list — Democrats should take it.
Granted, Trump once told Americans that a border wall, paid for by Mexico, would cost $4 billion. After that, he said $6 billion or $7 billion, and later $10 billion. Now his administration says it’s really $18 billion for 722 miles of wall, of which just 316 miles would be a brand-new structure along the 2,000-mile southwest frontier. Oh, and Mexico’s credit card seems to be missing.
The wall is a dumb idea. It won’t do much to suppress illegal border crossings, which in any event have been falling for decades. And the additional border security spending proposed by the administration, including thousands of new Border Patrol agents, is largely a waste. Rather than seriously addressing the opioid epidemic, or mounting cyberwarfare threats, or America’s crumbling infrastructure, the president wants to fortify a border where illegal crossings, as measured by Border Patrol apprehensions, are already at their lowest point since the Nixon administration.
But consider how rare it is that a dumb idea in Congress actually buys something smart in return. In this case, the return on that dumb idea would be huge. (And betting that the courts will save the Dreamers is too risky, notwithstanding a federal judge’s ruling Tuesday freezing Dreamers’ protections — for now.)
The wall’s $18 billion price tag would be spread over a decade. If a few billion dollars annually is the trade-off that provides certainty — a pathway to citizenship or permanent legal status — for nearly 700,000 young immigrants brought to this country as children by their parents, it’s worth it. Because the alternative — all those lives ruined, all those jobs lost, all that education and promise cut short — is much worse.
Democrats who choke on the wall, loath to hand Trump a political triumph, might ask themselves what other deals they might strike that would do so much tangible good, for so many people, so immediately — and at such a relatively modest price. The likely answer is: very few.
Some Republicans are angling for more than half a loaf. Using the Dreamers as hostages, they want to decimate legal immigration, slash family reunification visas and dissolve the lottery system that provides visas for people from Africa and other regions that generate relatively few immigrants.
Those measures would inflict real harm on real people. By contrast, spending billions on border security, while profligate, has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. In 2006, many prominent Democrats, including then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, voted for 700 miles of fencing at the Southwest frontier, albeit at a time when illegal crossings were more than three times greater than they are today.
Many in Congress may have lost the muscle memory required to strike a compromise, but here’s a reminder: In politics, as in life, compromise is often painful. That doesn’t mean you refuse it.