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The GOP’s True Priority

Kevin Dietsch
Thought Leader: David Frum
February 6, 2024
Written by: David Frum

Sometimes, a negotiation produces a deal.

Sometimes, a negotiation reveals the truth.

Negotiators in the Senate have produced a draft agreement on immigration and asylum. The deal delivers on Republican priorities. It includes changes to federal law to discourage asylum seeking. It shuts down asylum processing altogether if too many people arrive at once. Those and other changes send a clear message to would-be immigrants: You’re going to find it a lot harder to enter the United States without authorization. Rethink your plans.

The draft agreement offers little to nothing on major Democratic immigration priorities: no pathway to citizenship for long-term undocumented immigrants, only the slightest increase in legal immigration. The Democrats traded away most of their own policy wish list. In return, they want an end to the mood of crisis at the border, plus emergency defense aid for Ukraine and Israel.

Yet Republicans in the House seem determined to reject the draft agreement. They appear poised to leave in place a status quo that one senior GOP House leader has described as an “invasion” and an “existential and national security threat.”

So if no deal results, what truths will we learn from this process?

The first is that Republicans don’t really care all that much about the situation at the border. A real “existential threat” cannot wait for some later date. People who perceive an existential threat don’t delay. In fact, a good many Republican legislators are very happy to allow a continuing flow of laborers across the border.

Consider that Florida’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives has voted to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to work eight-hour days during the school year. Or that the Republican governor of Arkansas has signed a bill that relieves the state of having to certify that teenage workers aged 14 and 15 may work. Or that Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature may soon pass a law allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to work as late as 9 p.m. on school nights. Or that Republican legislators in Wisconsin are pushing to allow 14-to-17-year-olds to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants. Consider also that all of these changes are written with teenage migrants very much in mind: Almost 40 percent of recent border-crossers have been under 18, a fivefold increase since the late aughts.

Those teenagers are traveling both alone and in family groups. They are coming to the U.S. to work. When state legislatures relax the rules on employing under-18s and under-16s, they’re flashing a giant we’re hiring sign to job-seeking teenagers around the world. The legislators know that. The teenagers know it. American voters should know it too.

A second truth concerns what Republican priorities really are. When Mike Johnson was elevated to the House speakership, he claimed that he genuinely wanted to help Ukraine but that aid had to wait until Congress passed new laws to harden the U.S. southern border. He wrote to President Joe Biden as recently as December 5 that further aid to Ukraine was “dependent upon enactment of transformative change to our nation’s border security laws.” When Senate negotiators produced exactly what Johnson said he wanted—a transformative bill that Congress could enact—he responded by reversing his demands. Johnson no longer wants any law at all. But one thing is constant: no aid to Ukraine—which suggests that “no aid to Ukraine,” not “defend the border,” is the true priority here.

A third truth is suggested by the angry reaction of House Republicans to the work of Senate Republicans: The very act of negotiation is mistrusted. Along with their speaker, House Republicans radically altered their position from “there must be a new law” to “there must be no new law,” and from “the president must sign our bill exactly as we wrote it” to “the president must act unilaterally by executive authority only.” How does anyone negotiate with a House majority that can so abruptly and totally pivot? The true goal revealed is failure and chaos.

And this points to a fourth truth, maybe the most important one of all. Donald Trump has sold his supporters the dangerous fantasy that democratic politics can be replaced by one man’s will. No need for distasteful compromises. No need to reckon with the concerns and interests of people who disagree with House Republicans. Just somehow return Trump to the presidency: He’ll bark; the system will obey.

Of course, such fantasies have no basis in reality. As the Cato Institute reported last November:

The Biden Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has removed a higher percentage of arrested border crossers in its first two years than the Trump DHS did over its last two years. Moreover, migrants were more likely to be released after a border arrest under President Trump than under President Biden. In absolute terms, the Biden DHS is removing 3.5 times as many people per month as the Trump DHS did.

Altogether, about 1.1 million unauthorized border-crossers were released into the United States during the Trump presidency and not removed by the end of his term. Glowering and yelling do not in fact accomplish much. But to many Trump supporters, glowering and yelling are the whole of it. They don’t care how little gets accomplished, so long as that little is done in the most offensive manner possible.

In their 1981 study of negotiation, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury stress the importance of understanding the opposite party’s point of view. Among the benefits of doing so is helping a negotiator recognize when he’s received the best offer he’s likely to get—and then say yes rather than press for more and arrive at no.

Arriving at no is what’s happening now among the House Republicans. Because they refuse to understand the other side, they cannot appreciate a good offer and recognize when to accept it. They’re going to arrive only at no—no for America, and no for Ukraine. But no is what they want.

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