WASHINGTON — Since the day he launched his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has talked tough on immigration, promising to take the kind of decisive action he accused other politicians of avoiding.
This week, he waffled.
Trump passed off responsibility for the fate of the 800,000 young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children to a Congress that has shown little ability to tackle politically fraught issues. He gave lawmakers six months to act, then said in a Tuesday night tweet that he would “revisit this issue” if they didn't. He sent Attorney General Jeff Sessions out to be the face of the controversial policy, effectively ceding one of the central roles of the presidency: explaining difficult decisions to the American people.
Trump addressed the move only briefly during a tax policy event at the White House, saying he had “a great heart for the folks we're talking about, a great love.”
It was the path of least resistance for a president who promised bold action and decisive leadership. And it pleased almost no one.
Democrats — including former President Barack Obama, who instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 by excutive fiat — and immigration advocates slammed Trump as cruel and heartless. Some Republican lawmakers said the decision was counter to American values and bristled at Trump's decision to foist the problem on Congress at the start of a fall legislative session already packed with high-stakes issues.
Conservatives who pinned their hopes on Trump and his hard-line immigration policies during the campaign — including an unfulfilled pledge to build a wall along the southern border and have Mexico pay for it — accused him of breaking his promises.
Ann Coulter, the far-right commentator who informally advised Trump on immigration issues during the campaign, said Trump's sudden eagerness for immigration legislation that addressed the fate of DACA recipients and other issues was “exactly what he used to denounce.”
Officials offered few details about what the president wants Congress to do, beyond providing legal status for young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president wanted Congress to include those protections in a broader immigration package, but did not spell out what else Trump wanted in a bill. Previous efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform have included roadmaps to legal status for people living in the country illegally, a step Trump has panned as “amnesty.”
Republicans made clear they weren't ready to go down that road again without clear markers from the president.
“It is important that the White House clearly outline what kind of legislation the president is willing to sign,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said. “We have no time to waste on ideas that do not have the votes to pass or that the president won't sign.”
In punting to Congress, Trump is taking a page out of the playbook of predecessors. Presidents often try to pass the burden for difficult decisions on to Congress. Obama tried for years to get Congress to take up sweeping immigration legislation, and ultimately took executive action to protect hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation when it became clear lawmakers wouldn't act on that front ahead of his re-election campaign.
But rarely do presidents hang the kind of legislative albatross on their own party in the way Trump did. The six-month timeframe he set for lawmakers to act before pulling work permits from the Dreamers extends into a midterm election year, when Congress is less likely to take up a politically sensitive issue.
Republicans, who have spent years struggling with the party's positioning on immigration, have no appetite for taking up legislation this year. While some GOP leaders complained of executive overreach when Obama enacted DACA, many are sympathetic to the young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children and were willing to let the program stand.
“I strongly believe that children who were illegally brought into this country through no fault of their own should not be forced to return to a country they do not know,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who called Trump's move the “wrong approach.”
The president's decision underscored his own uneasiness with the future of the program. As a candidate, Trump vowed to end the deportation protections for young immigrants. But as president, he assured the dreamers they could “rest easy.” In private meetings with aides, he often tried to skirt the issue and delay a decision on the program's future.
Ultimately, Trump left many questions unanswered. Among them: what happens in March if Congress hasn't passed legislation to clarify the status of the young immigrants?
The president's Tuesday night tweet appeared to leave open the possibility that he could follow Obama's lead and use his executive power to continue protecting the Dreamers from deportation. But in another indication of the president trying to have it both ways, the guidance the White House sent to members of Congress included an ominous warning.
The Department of Homeland Security urges DACA recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States," the guidance read.
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