Trump’s mixed message on immigration: An opening for a deal?

The president’s approach is both tough and flexible, a sign he may be open to a comprehensive solution with Congress to ease fears about US policy.

The Statue of Liberty in New York's Harbor as seen from Brooklyn Feb. 21.

Despite a raw partisanship in American politics right now, a new poll by Morning Consult/Politico finds that both Democratic and Republican voters – about 70 percent – want political leaders to compromise to “get things done.” If lawmakers choose to reflect that cooperative spirit among voters, they could start with immigration.

That broad topic has so many moving parts, from better border security to improved legal immigration, that compromise is almost inevitable in order to “get things done.” A good example has already been set. Despite President Trump’s executive actions on immigration – a travel ban on those from certain countries, an order to build a wall with Mexico, and a wider net to catch those in the country illegally – he has also begun to walk back some of his rhetoric on unauthorized migrants.

During the campaign, for example, he said he would end an Obama administration program that promised not to deport some 750,000 migrants brought to the United States as children. Now the president is open to accommodating the so-called Dreamers. Even more, he recently met with a group of senators and said he would consider a comprehensive solution on immigration. “There was an almost universal interest in addressing our lauded immigration system,” Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas told CNN about the White House meeting.

Mr. Trump’s official moves so far offer only a piecemeal approach. Yet he knows not all the estimated 11 million people in the US illegally can be deported. Instead many would probably need to pay a penalty for violating US law and perhaps return to their home country to wait in line before earning a chance at US residency. He also knows he’ll need help from Congress to upgrade current laws that set priorities on types of legal immigrants allowed into the US.

In other words, dealmaking is necessary and, along with it, goodwill on all sides.

One model is a grand compromise reached in 2013 by a bipartisan group of senators known as the “gang of eight.” It was the best attempt at immigration reform in a generation. The plan passed the Senate by a wide margin but stalled in the more conservative House. Its range of reforms, however, might not be exactly right in 2017. Migration from Mexico has slowed. The US economy has gained strength. And the politics of immigration is even more divisive.

Nonetheless, if Congress and the president want to “get something done,” they can work together and lessen two sets of fears: a fear among Americans about unauthorized migration and a fear of deportation among millions of migrants who have been in the US illegally for years.

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