In a remarkable exchange with an undocumented mother Thursday night at a CNN town hall, House Speaker Paul Ryan strongly suggested to her that the revocation of protections for the DREAMers brought here as children will not be carried out. That’s newsworthy on its own. But beyond that, the exchange, captured on YouTube, also exposed the cruelty of stepped-up mass deportations for many other low-level undocumented offenders.
The policy details lurking underneath the emotion are extremely important. A woman brought here illegally as an 11-year-old child “through no fault of her own,” as CNN’s Jake Tapper put it, asked whether she and “many families in my situation” should face deportation. “No,” Ryan responded. After noting her love for her daughter, Ryan added:
“What we have to do is find a way to make sure that you can get right with the law. And we’ve got to do this so that the rug doesn’t get pulled out from under you and your family gets separated. That’s the way we feel. And that is exactly what our new, incoming president has stated he wants to do. … I’m sure you’re a great contributor to your community.”
This might be a reference to the fact that President-elect Donald Trump recently seemed to back off his pledge to reverse President Barack Obama’s executive action protecting DREAMers from deportation, saying instead that “we’re going to work something out” for them. Indeed, under subsequent questioning from Tapper, Ryan explicitly said he and the Trump transition team were working on a “good, humane solution” for the hundreds of thousands currently benefiting from that executive action.
Crucially, this executive action (DACA) doesn’t just protect DREAMers from deportation. It also grants them work permits, which means that revoking it would revoke those work permits, driving untold numbers of young, assimilated, culturally American immigrants back underground. Ryan alluded to this when he described her as a “contributor” to her “community.” And so, at a minimum, Ryan’s assertions would appear to mean that Republicans and Trump are trying to work out some way that the DREAMers can continue contributing to American life out in the open. (At a maximum, “get right with the law” means creating a path to legal status for those people.) Whether this actually ends up happening, the key point is that Ryan basically admitted that this is the moral imperative here.
But Ryan went further still. Ryan alluded to the need to avoid breaking up families like hers, while also acknowledging the need to solve the problem “writ large,” by which he meant, the problem of the 11 million – and he even said there wouldn’t be any “deportation force.” Ryan understands immigration policy. In 2014, he gingerly tried to walk his party toward embracing some sort of path to legal status for most undocumented immigrants. He appears to grasp that the core dilemma here is that most undocumented immigrants are more than mere lawbreakers – that stepping up deportations would break up families of people who have been longtime “contributors” to their “communities.”
Indeed, what this exchange also shows, by illustrating this fundamental dilemma in human terms, is that carrying out these core promises of Trumpism would be a political disaster. The DREAMers in particular are sympathetic figures. But so are many undocumented immigrants who came here as adults seeking better lives for their families. And such tales would be widely circulated by the national media. It isn’t just that these stories would make for good political ammunition. It’s that stepped-up mass deportations actually would be cruel and inhumane, and majorities of Americans would likely see them in exactly those terms.
Ryan seems to know this. The question now is what Trump will do – and whether congressional Republicans will go along with the worst.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog for the Washington Post.
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