By Anthony Zurcher
For months we’ve been heading toward this moment, a political conflagration on the border over immigrant policy. But what is Donald Trump’s endgame – and why?
In May the New York Times reported that Donald Trump had berated Homeland Security Secretary Kristjen Nielsen over what he viewed as her failure to aggressively enforce border security and urged her to begin the process that would result in undocumented children being taken away from their parents.
“One persistent issue has been Mr Trump’s belief that Ms Nielsen and other officials in the department were resisting his direction that parents be separated from their children when families cross illegally into the United States, several officials said,” the Times reported. “The president and his aides in the White House had been pushing a family separation policy for weeks as a way of deterring families from trying to cross the border illegally.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ 7 May announcement of a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal crossings simply cemented the decision.
Administration officials have offered conflicting explanations for the harrowing details of crying children kept in fenced-in rooms and despondent parents, but Mr Trump’s dual goals appear clear:
- Leverage – he wants to force Democrats in Congress to negotiate a legislative package that keeps migrant families intact in exchange for full funding for his much-touted border wall, speedier deportation of undocumented aliens and sweeping changes to legal immigration policy.
- Red meat – if he fails to get a deal, he sees this as a winning mid-term election issue, motivating his base to turn out in support of Republicans across the country.
Let’s break those down.
1) A dark art of the deal?
If a presidential decision to create a situation that is intolerable for Democrats in order to gain the upper hand in immigration negotiations seems familiar, that’s because it is.
Mr Trump pursued a similar strategy when he ended the Obama-era Daca programme that provided normalised status for the children of undocumented immigrants – often referred to as “Dreamers” – last October. Mr Trump repeatedly blamed congressional Democrats for inaction and said deportation of these long-time US residents who had only recently emerged from the legal shadows would be their fault.
“Any deal on DACA that does not include STRONG border security and the desperately needed WALL is a total waste of time,” he tweeted in February. “Dems seem not to care about DACA. Make a deal!”
- Psychological impact on separated children
- Mixed messages on US migrant policy
- Why US is separating migrant children from parents
Attempts to pass a comprehensive bill were derailed, however, as early suggestions by the president that he was open to a bipartisan compromise were replaced by more sweeping demands by members of Mr Trump’s negotiating team.
Eventually courts eased the pressure to reach an agreement before the Trump-imposed March deadline by ordering the administration to continue processing Dreamer applications while legal challenges were considered.
Now the pressure is on again – and the president’s comments and tweets are eerily similar to those of a few months ago.
“The Democrats are forcing the breakup of families at the Border with their horrible and cruel legislative agenda,” the president tweeted. “Any Immigration Bill MUST HAVE full funding for the Wall, end Catch & Release, Visa Lottery and Chain, and go to Merit Based Immigration.”