(Bloomberg View) -- What doesn’t Donald Trump understand about the word “illegal”?
That’s the gist of some right-wing reaction to the president’s comments in an interview with the Associated Press last week. The sticking point is Trump’s position on Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, and who were shielded from deportation by executive actions signed by President Barack Obama.
Trump had expressed sympathy toward Dreamers before. But last week he explicitly said he would protect them.
“And that’s going to be the policy of your administration,” the AP asked Trump, “to allow the Dreamers to stay?”
Trump’s reply was unequivocal: “Yes. Yes. That’s our policy.” Because even the most unequivocal statements from Trump can be entirely unreliable, the reporter gave Trump the option to repeat his vow or wriggle away.
AP: A lot of the Dreamers have been hoping to hear something from you. I don’t want to give them the wrong message with this.
TRUMP: Here is what they can hear: The Dreamers should rest easy. OK? I’ll give you that. The Dreamers should rest easy.
There is something gratuitously cruel about the president telling a group of people to “rest easy,” while his own federal agents are locking them up.
In February, Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, John Kelly, ordered that the government “will not exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.” In an interview with Bloomberg News Thursday, Kelly said, “ICE, DHS, we do not deport people. Law deports people. We just execute the law.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking after Trump’s AP interview, made a point of saying that Dreamers are indeed “subject to deportation.”
As a result of this stew of conflicting words and actions, and in light of Trump’s long trail of broken promises, Dreamers, and immigration advocates more broadly, were not reassured by the president’s words.
At the same time, Trump has also aggravated the anti-immigrant pillars of his base. If the third or so of Americans who are eager for a border wall aren’t growing anxious about its prospects, they should be. Meanwhile, Mark Krikorian, director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, told Breitbart radio that Trump’s avowed soft spot for Dreamers, and his failure to rescind the executive actions that protect them, betray a promise.
“During the campaign, now-President Trump had said he was going to end that on day one because it’s an unconstitutional action,” Krikorian said. “And of course he’s right, it’s illegal.”
Trump has always cast his deportation plans as a consequence of his respect for law. He’s not against immigrants, he insists. Just illegal immigration. “We’re going to have people come in, but they’re going to come in legally,” Trump said in 2015, making a point he frequently repeated.
But the laws passed by Congress do not differentiate between Dreamers, about 750,000 of whom registered to take advantage of Obama’s plan, and millions of other undocumented immigrants. That distinction was made by Obama, in executive actions that conservatives denounced and that the House of Representatives voted to rescind.
If Trump follows Obama’s lead, then he is following the discretionary path of common sense and decency. Dreamers, after all, did nothing wrong by following adults into the U.S. And the U.S., which has invested in them through education and infrastructure, has much to gain from their full integration and employment.
But such a course is not following the immigration law. And if Trump is not following the law regarding Dreamers, why is he following it by deporting their mothers, who also pose no threat to anyone and participate in the economy?
It’s possible to produce a coherent answer to that question. Trump hasn’t.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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