esthercepeda

Esther Cepeda

It’s unclear whether a deal will be reached to ensure that the young, unlawfully present immigrants known as “Dreamers” can stay in the country. What is sure is that, either way, Americans’ faith in their government will suffer another blow.

Let’s face it: Anyone who really believed that passing a limited, smallish measure on immigration was going to be as simple as the verbal agreement that President Trump, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer made over dinner last month was kidding him or herself.

The fact of the matter is that Trump is focused solely on reaping adoration for his actions in the moment — for the audience who happens to be in front of him at the time — regardless of what the consequences might be. His initial promise to extend protections for those covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program without requiring a border security package that included his wall demonstrates this perfectly.

Trump may have momentarily been enchanted by the opportunity to appear to reach across the aisle and make a deal. But when conservatives revolted, he backpedaled the next day, saying there was no finalized agreement to celebrate.

Now the president’s list of demands includes creating a merit-based immigration system that disfavors chain family migration, making the E-Verify system mandatory, and withholding federal grant money from so-called “sanctuary cities.” These requirements — in exchange for a deal to protect the 690,000 or so DACA beneficiaries — have made his base happy while almost certainly making any deal a nonstarter for Democrats.

A barrage of attacks against Trump’s wish list quickly hit reporters’ inboxes, describing the move as a cruel bait-and-switch.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in her statement: “These proposals are simply a reprise of the worst aspects of the Trump campaign’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee scapegoating — reasserted, one assumes, to make Dreamers pawns in a power game. It is exactly why people hate Washington, D.C., politics: Instead of solving problems like what will happen to the ... young Americans covered by DACA — who are learning in, working in and completely woven into the country that is their home — they are held hostage as a way to make our broken immigration system even worse.”

It’s difficult to disagree with the substance of Weingarten’s critique, but it also gives Trump too much credit. Chess is a game of vision, strategy, planning and precise execution. Nothing that has come out of the White House in the past eight months smacks of the cunning necessary to actually play a chess game, let alone win it.

What Weingarten hit on the nose is that people despise D.C. politicians and have largely lost faith in our institutions’ ability to get anything done.

For years, Americans have increasingly viewed government as untrustworthy. Public confidence in government is now at a historic low, with only 4 percent of us believing Washington will do what is right “just about always” and 16 percent believing it would do so “most of the time,” according to the Pew Research Center.

And the current immigration drama is sure to disappoint great swaths of the electorate no matter what.

If Trump doesn’t make good on his promises to take the hardest possible line on immigration and ends up reaching a compromise to shield DACA-eligible people from deportation, his base will feel betrayed and rebel.

If Democrats make the difficult choice to accept some or many of the items on the Trump wish list in exchange for protections for this small slice of the 11 million immigrants residing in the U.S. illegally, there will inevitably be enmity within the party and claims that it sold its soul.

Worse still, if the Democrats’ threat of a government shutdown backfires or they simply walk away from any potential compromise, it will reaffirm that elected leaders are impotent in moving forward on big issues.

In any scenario, the idea that government is broken and that the other side is to blame will only add to political polarization and what is quickly becoming learned helplessness on both sides.

The consequence of this high-visibility fight over DACA recipients will be that — whether our youngest, most idealistic and most Americanized immigrants are cast off or allowed to remain in some sort of imperfect status — we’ll all lose.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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