President Donald Trump did the right thing Wednesday by reversing course to address an immigration crisis. He issued an executive order to end his administration’s inhumane practice of separating children from their parents at the southern border.
Nearly 2,000 children had been sent alone to shelters because of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to prosecute all adults, including parents, who violate immigration laws. Taking aggressive enforcement action at the border is a policy choice, but doing so at the cost of victimizing children was cruel.
Trump responded to the public outcry, and to protestations at home from the first lady. He also recognized what previous presidents learned at some point in their tenures: Immigration is an emotion-laden issue that defies simple resolution. Sort of like health care. “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” Trump marveled early in his term, even if he was among the last American to discover that fact. On Wednesday, he offered a similar gee-whiz observation about immigration reform: “If you are really, really, pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you’re strong, you don’t have any heart. That’s a tough dilemma.”
In signing the executive order, Trump left himself open to some colorful criticisms. He “caved” to pressure. Or he “lied” about his policy reversal because he previously insisted only Congress could end the separation practice, not an executive order. Or he had been holding the children “hostage” as part of a hoped-for congressional deal that also would fund the border wall he desperately wants. Forgive our lack of indignation. We’ve seen presidents do backflips to escape poor decisions, and we want them to rectify their mistakes and search for compromises.
What’s hurt Trump in this instance is his failure to seize the moment. He could have used the last few days to rally members of the House and Senate in support of a bill that would end the practice of separation plus take on other desperately needed immigration reforms. Something still could happen, but when momentum on Capitol Hill didn’t accelerate quickly, Trump took action. He did so despite the fact that his initial claim that Congress must act to stop separations may turn out to be accurate.
As of Wednesday night, there was still an expectation the House could take up a bill supported by Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. It would resolve both the treatment of migrant children and another immigration problem, that of the so-called Dreamers — the young foreigners who grew up in the U.S. after being brought here without permission. Ryan’s bill also would provide money for border security, including Trump’s wall, and tighten legal immigration.
The challenge is finding enough supporters in a bitterly divided legislative body. Democrats don’t want to fund the wall, or give Trump a victory. Hard-line Republicans equate giving the Dreamers a path to staying in the U.S. with amnesty. And the president won’t abandon his wall idea. We’ve scoffed at that notion ever since Trump mentioned it (and promised that Mexico would fund it). Another issue is whether there is still urgency to include an end to child separation in the bill, or if the executive order is enough.
Our wish for many years has been to see comprehensive immigration reform that would include stronger border protection and a plan to address the millions of people who have lived and worked here for years in violation of our dysfunctional system. There is a scenario, however unlikely, in which Trump makes progress where other presidents came up short. He still sounds interested in the legislation, and we’d like to see progress. If money for the wall must be included, we’d reluctantly accept that in Congress, compromise doesn’t come free.
Inaction on immigration shouldn’t be an option. By that measure, Wednesday brought progress. The president signed an order on immigration to end a practice that hurt children. Now, the reforms.