Here’s why an immigration deal is so hard to reach — and the shutdown will be hard to end

  • The federal government is entering into its third day of a shutdown.
  • President Donald Trump’s malleable negotiating position is complicating efforts to end the shutdown.
  • Shutdowns usually end when one side realizes it has lost – and that could take a while, since both sides seem to believe they’ll be able to roll Trump sooner or later.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says negotiating with President Donald Trump “is like negotiating with Jell-O.” His positions shift so much, it’s hard to tell what you might get him to agree to.

The president’s shifting positions are a problem that has contributed to the shutdown. But there’s another, related issue: Members of Congress in both parties believe the president is a weak negotiator. This discourages them from compromising, even among themselves, because they believe they’ll eventually be able to roll Trump closer to their own position.

Why cut a deal now when you believe you’ll eventually be able to get Trump alone in a room and he’ll agree to give you more?

This expectation has led to a narrative from supporters of the Durbin-Graham proposal on immigration, saying Trump appears willing to do a wall-for-DACA deal, if only he weren’t getting hijacked by hardline staffers, especially Stephen Miller.

Get rid of Miller and you’ve gotten rid of the problem that’s stopping you from rolling the president.

But you could say the same thing backward – that Trump is a hardliner on immigration who occasionally gets hijacked, in a meeting with someone like Schumer, into being willing to codify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in exchange for not much more than some wall.

Stop him from meeting alone with Schumer, and he’ll never agree to give away so much.

What makes the Trump who has just met with Schumer anymore the “real” Trump than the Trump who has just met with Miller? Trump, after all, was pushing a hardline anti-immigration stance from the first day of his campaign, before Miller even worked for him.

If the real Trump is the Trump who railed against immigration from day one, then Trump is behaving rationally if he refuses to make such a deal without the significant concessions for which he’s intermittently asking.

Democrats are also behaving rationally to refuse those concessions, which is why my expectation is that there will be no immigration deal, even one limited in scope to DACA.

Trump has reasons to shoot for the stars

Stephen Miller.

caption
Stephen Miller.
source
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trump’s immigration platform doesn’t just call for a crackdown on illegal immigration – something he has significant ability to achieve through his executive power alone, though he’d like Congress to give him some more tools.

He also wants a sharp reduction in legal immigration, especially green cards given on the basis of a family relationship to a US citizen or resident. That he can’t do without Congress’ approval.

But in the Senate, there isn’t majority support for such a reduction in legal immigration. There’s also hesitation about some of the enforcement measures the president wants Congress to fund. And after November’s election, Trump may lose the Republican majority in one or both houses of Congress.

Trump’s one shot to get his immigration agenda through Congress is to insist it be tied to a DACA deal. So, why would he agree to protect DACA in exchange for a wall that people around the president (and probably the president himself) understand is mostly symbolic?

One possible answer to that is because he is a very bad negotiator. But even if that is true, the White House staff seems to be preventing him from following bad negotiating instincts here, much to the frustration of Democrats and Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Another possible answer is that the president wants a DACA fix. After all, he has said he wants a fix. But we all want a lot of things, and sometimes we want multiple things that we can’t have all at once. Do you think the president really wants a DACA fix more than he wants his broader agenda for immigration restriction? Not likely.

This, I believe, is why the White House keeps making lists of extremely ambitious immigration restriction demands in exchange for DACA. Those demands sound wildly disproportionate to Democrats. But people in the Trump administration must know that if those demands don’t get satisfied now, as part of this deal, Congress will never send the president legislation that does so.

And I expect Democrats to say “never.” While they want an agreement on DACA, they’re not likely to be willing to give up the permanent changes to the immigration system they would need to give up to get it.

Rather than going smaller, I think the most plausible deal on immigration would have to be larger – an amnesty that applies to a majority of existing unauthorized immigrants in exchange for significant reductions in future legal immigration plus other changes the president wants. But my sense is such a deal would fail because both sides would feel they had given up more than they gained.

That’s why my expectation is no immigration deal now, no deal next month, no deal before the election, and, depending on what the courts do, a lot of uncertainty and risk for DACA participants.

There is no obvious shutdown endgame

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

caption
House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
source
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The main question is when and how the government can reopen when both sides realize they are at an impasse on immigration.

Republicans seem convinced they have the better of the politics of this shutdown. The talking points are obvious: Democrats have blocked funding to keep the government open (and to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years), interfering with government services for US citizens and legal residents, to make demands on behalf of a group of unauthorized immigrants.

While a DACA solution is a very popular idea, shutting down the government in pursuit of it is not. A CNN poll released Friday found that only 34% of respondents said continuing DACA was more important than keeping the federal government open.

Democrats hope Trump’s low popularity and reputation for fomenting chaos – and his statement last spring that Washington “needs a good ‘shutdown'” – will lead voters to blame Republicans for the shutdown. And early polling shows a plurality of voters doing just that.

Usually, shutdowns end when one side realizes it has lost the politics of the shutdown fight. And I’m not sure either side is likely to come to that conclusion within the next few days.