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Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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Column: Three lessons from Trump’s immigration fiasco

Even though President Donald Trump has signed an executive order reversing his policy of separating families who immigrated illegally at the border, the shards are still being reassembled.

We still donít know whatís happening with the 2,300 children already separated from their parents. Congress on Thursday failed to pass the first of two immigration bills ó and a vote on the second one was postponed until this week. And U.S. Customs and Border Patrol now says it will stop referring parents for prosecution, while the Justice Department says prosecutions will continue under its zero-tolerance policy. Put simply: Itís a mess.

Here are three lessons we can take away.

THERE IS NO PLAN. With Trump, there is a tendency ó on the part of both the media and his supporters ó to view everything he does as if heís secretly manipulating things behind the scenes. Maybe he separated families just so he could reverse the decision and look magnanimous! Maybe he did it knowing his new executive order would just be struck down anyway! Maybe heís just going to hold families in detention indefinitely!

But basically everything about the past week has betrayed this central reality: There is no plan. This approach might make sense ó politically if not morally ó if there was a clear endgame. But about the only thing thatís been consistent about this whole thing is chaos.

If Trump wanted the Houseís immigration bills to pass, he has a strange way of showing it, given he has undermined them three times in six days. He said last Friday that he wouldnít sign the more moderate House GOP leadership bill. Then he said Tuesday that he would demand changes to bills that leaders thought had been settled. Then he tweeted Thursday that it was basically pointless for the House to pass these bills because the Senate never would.

Trump tweeted "What is the purpose of the House doing good immigration bills when you need 9 votes by Democrats in the Senate, and the Dems are only looking to Obstruct (which they feel is good for them in the Mid-Terms). Republicans must get rid of the stupid Filibuster Rule - it is killing you!"

And if Trump truly wants to impose a zero-tolerance immigration policy, heís not exactly doing that, either. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has decided to no longer refer adults who immigrate illegally with children to the Justice Department for prosecution, because they donít have the resources to deal with them. The practical effect is that something akin to the "catch and release" policy for which Trump has so roundly criticized the Obama administration is now the policy, for all intents and purposes.

TRUMP OVERPLAYED HIS HAND. The Trump administration repeatedly said this wasnít a new policy and that it had no choice. Both of those arguments were directly contradicted by its executive order to reverse the policy. And itís now abundantly clear this was a failed gambit to force action by Congress.

Just as Trump rescinded DACA, said he had no choice and demanded Congress clean up the mess, he seemed to be doing the same with the family-separation policy ó which neither the George W. Bush administration nor the Obama administration employed (and which the Trump administration itself didnít employ for more than a year). But while Trumpís DACA decision was controversial, separating young children from their parents brought things to a whole new level.

Trump seldom backs down in the face of pressure, but he did so in this case. That, in and of itself, is a pretty unmistakable admission that the White House badly miscalculated the politics of this issue. And, boy, did it.

THERE IS NO END IN SIGHT. One of the ironies of the immigration debate, Iíve argued, is that Trump is perhaps uniquely able to make comprehensive immigration reform happen ó if he wanted and if he were disciplined enough to do it. Trump has such credibility with a conservative base that has repeatedly balked at any immigration compromises that he could effectively force passage of something if he were to put his full weight behind it.

But this whole situation only created new messes to be cleaned up and relationships that need mending. The Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department arenít on the same page. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsenís credibility is in tatters. We still have no idea whatís happening with the 2,300 children who have already been separated from their parents. The zero-tolerance policy is creating such a backlog that there arenít enough facilities or judges to deal with all of it.

Congress and the administration are now in the position of dealing with recently created disasters rather than the long-standing issues that have been the focus of previous immigration debates. And with the well sufficiently poisoned and so little time until the 2018 election, we may be past the window for getting anything done with a fully Republican-controlled Congress.

If that was part of Trumpís plan, mission accomplished.

Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for the Washington Postís political blog The Fix.

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