Trump Uses MS-13 To 'Sell Draconian Overhauls Of Border Issues,' Journalist Says

Feb 15, 2018
Originally published on February 20, 2018 10:56 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You've probably heard President Trump say terrifying things about the predominantly Salvadoran gang MS-13 and how it's terrorizing people in some communities in the U.S. Here's the president six months after taking office, speaking at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Since January 16 - think of this - MS-13 gang members have brutally murdered 17 beautiful young lives in this area - on Long Island alone. Think of it. They butchered those little girls. They kidnap. They extort. They rape and they rob. They prey on children. They shouldn't be here. They stomp on their victims. They beat them with clubs. They slash them with machetes, and they stab them with knives. They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into blood-stained killing fields. They're animals.

GROSS: In Trump's State of the Union address, he said that many MS-13 gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors. That led into his description of his plan to overhaul the immigration system. My guest Jonathan Blitzer writes that the president has become obsessed with MS-13 But he might actually be strengthening the gang by talking about how menacing it is. And the anti-immigration policies Trump's administration is putting into effect are hurting many of the same people who were targeted by MS-13.

Blitzer is a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers immigration. We're going to talk about the history of MS-13, who the gang members are, who the victims are and where this gang fits in the current story of American immigration. We're also going to talk about the uncertain future of DACA and this week's Senate debate about overhauling the immigration system.

Jonathan Blitzer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Do you know how MS-13 became such an obsession of Donald Trump's?

JONATHAN BLITZER: It's an interesting question. I followed Donald Trump on Long Island during the Republican primaries in the spring of 2016. And you'd think that MS-13 would have been an issue for him then if he was so fixated on a gang. I mean, MS-13 has been on Long Island since the '90s. But all throughout the primary campaign and during all of these very dramatic public appearances that he made on Long Island to different towns, he never once mentioned MS-13 at the time. So the question of sort of when it burst onto his consciousness seems to have been with the murder of two girls in September of 2016. It kind of lined up all of Trump's favorite obsessions on the immigration issue. The girls were American citizens. They were sort of sympathetic teenagers. They were brutally, brutally killed.

And it wasn't until after the election - there was kind of this very dramatic moment during an interview he gave with Time magazine as the Person of the Year when he was sitting at his desk in Trump Tower and kind of cut away and grabbed a copy of Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. And on the cover of Newsday was more information about this grisly set of murders. And that seems to be the moment when he embraced this issue, the issue of MS-13 violence as a major talking point that would define how he sort of framed the immigration debate from that point forward.

GROSS: So how has he used MS-13 to frame the debate on immigration?

BLITZER: I mean, MS-13, for him, solves all kinds of rhetorical problems. So first of all, he wants to portray immigrants nationwide as being criminals. And that's obviously empirically untrue. But also statistically, that's wildly inaccurate. Crime in immigrant communities tends to be much lower. Immigrants tend to be much more law abiding than citizens.

And so he needs - in order to kind of drum up this menace of immigrant criminality, he needs to just find individual examples that are particularly bracing. And the murders at the hands of MS-13 members are really horrific acts. I mean, people are killed with baseball bats, bludgeoned with machetes. I mean, it really is nightmarish kind of stuff. And so that helps him, for one thing, paint this portrait of rampant criminality at the hands of immigrants; the need to crack down on immigrants generally as an issue of public safety. So MS-13 helps him frame questions about sanctuary cities, which is like a particular bete noire for him. He feels that sanctuary cities threaten to undermine the rule of law. They're an affront to the citizen population.

It helps him shape the debate on DREAMers and recipients of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is kind of a big congressional issue now ever since Trump canceled the program in September of 2017. He often mentions the two in the same sentence as a way of trying to sell wholesale draconian overhauls of border security measures and interior enforcement measures. MS-13 is useful for him there.

And it also allows him to continue to prop up officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, who for years have had a series of guidelines dictating how they do their jobs, who they go after for arrests. And he has systematically removed all of those guidelines. And by mentioning MS-13 and by mentioning the sort of public safety threat that's rampant across America, as he describes it, ICE agents and officers are meant to have more leeway in combating this threat. So it kind - it's sort of a useful - it's a useful talking point for him because it almost touches on every issue that he wants to press.

GROSS: OK. So MS-13 is a great talking point for Donald Trump to serve his mission of cracking down on immigration. What is MS-13? It's described as a gang. But it's not like it's a street gang like the Crips or the Bloods. It's much larger than that. Like, what - who are they? What are they?

BLITZER: Actually, it is more like the Bloods or the Crips than it is like, you know, Mexican cartels or Colombian cartels that have this transnational reach. The gang began in Los Angeles in the 1980s. And what led to the rise of the gang was that there was a massive civil war in El Salvador. The U.S. weighed in on the side of the military government at the time in El Salvador.

A very brutal war - 75,000 civilians were killed. And there was a massive refugee crisis. I mean, close to a quarter of the population of El Salvador fled to the United States. And a lot of these people arrived in inner cities, particularly in Los Angeles on the West Coast. And they found themselves in a climate where there actually were rampant street gangs - black street gangs, Mexican street gangs - and these Salvadoran refugees were brutalized by them.

And so they started to form groups of their own, essentially as a kind of self-defense. And with time, these groups grew more and more violent. They were thrown into prisons across the state. And in prison, their identity further coalesced. And eventually, in the mid-1990s, the U.S. started emptying prisons in California and deporting these gangsters en masse back to El Salvador. And this is...

GROSS: And how...

BLITZER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Did the gang change once these MS-13 members were deported to El Salvador?

BLITZER: Well, for one thing, it took a local gang problem that was festering on the streets of Los Angeles, and it turned it into an international crisis. El Salvador, at the time, had been decimated by more than 12 years of civil war. The police force had essentially been dismantled. You had armed ex-guerrillas who were kind of ranging around parts of the country. And these guys start to arrive. They have money because a lot of them had been living in the U.S. They have a sense of style; they listen to rap music; they had a fashion - all of these things that were sort of hallmarks of Los Angeles gang culture at the time.

And that culture quickly took root on the streets of El Salvador. And over time - over the next several years, it started to fan out across Central America - so Honduras, Guatemala - and increasingly made those countries very, very dangerous and led to separate refugee crises that were the result of people fleeing violence there.

GROSS: So how did the nature of MS-13 change as it became international?

BLITZER: I don't know that the character of the gang changed much. And this is a really interesting question about the gang's formation - and its current strength. MS-13 is often portrayed as a kind of transnational criminal organization, and that puts it in the company of Mexican drug cartels, Colombian drug cartels. MS-13 definitely doesn't have that kind of reach. In fact, they don't have that much sway over the drug trade for one thing. They don't do great international business.

There was a study recently that looked at the revenues of MS-13 in El Salvador. So there are about 60,000 gang members in El Salvador, and there's no question that the country is sort of routed by this gang. But the gang itself, for the control that it exerts over that entire country, doesn't have revenue streams that are that striking. It's something like $30 million a year. I mean, you compare that to the cartels - the Mexican cartels that are trafficking in tens of billions of dollars a year - I mean, these are sort of small, kind of local territorial kind of mafias.

GROSS: Do you know why MS-13's violence is often very gruesome, such as chopping up a body with a machete?

BLITZER: I mean, I think dating back to its origins, I think it was a matter of proving their toughness, proving that they could hang with some very violent gangs that at the time were brutalizing Salvadoran refugees in Los Angeles. And I think it's mainly their - it's their strength as a recruitment tool. I mean, the more menacing and dangerous and scary they seem, the more they can pressure people to join its ranks.

Recruitment often is a form of coercion. And so the more scared people are of the gang, the more likely they are to join it. And the more brutal its reputation, the more marginalized people whom the gang typically fixates on both to recruit and to victimize, tend to feel like, well, we have no really other choice other than to cooperate with these gang members.

GROSS: Let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Blitzer, and he writes about immigration for The New Yorker. He's a staff writer there. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Blitzer, who writes about immigration for The New Yorker. He's a staff writer there. And we've been talking about the gang MS-13, which is one of Trump's big anti-immigration talking points.

So you described how MS-13 got started in California, then when a lot of the members were deported back to El Salvador, it became more international. So why does Long Island have such a large - relatively large population of people in MS-13?

BLITZER: Well, typically, the gang thrives in areas where there are large enclaves of Central Americans. And there are a lot of Salvadorans on Long Island. You know, it's a funny thing to talk about because in some senses, given how gruesome the violence is and given how much attention the gang is getting now, you'd think that we're talking about huge numbers of people who are involved. The numbers are relatively small when you really dig into them.

I mean, in Suffolk County, for example, on Long Island - and this is the county that so obsesses Donald Trump - you're talking about roughly 400 suspected MS-13 members. And so that number is relatively low when you think about the fact that, you know, there are close to 60,000 Salvadorans on Long Island. One of the issues that's come up recently, and this adds a whole layer of complexity, is that over the years, as more and more Central American kids have fled the gangs in Central America, the U.S. has had a kind of refugee crisis. It's known as the unaccompanied minors crisis.

And so a lot of these kids - we're talking about kids between the ages of 6 and 17 - have started showing up at the U.S. border seeking some form of asylum essentially. And between, you know, 2014 and the current moment, we're talking about, you know, over 150,000 kids. These are kids who came without their parents who are fleeing violence and trying to reunite with family members who are living in the U.S. And what the U.S. government does when these kids show up at the border is they briefly take them into detention. They do a kind of quick form of vetting, and then they place them with family members across the U.S.

And this is where your question gets to kind of how the gang and certain immigrant enclaves kind of tend to come together. A lot of these kids have wound up on Long Island because they have family members there. And so between 2014 and now, there were something like 8,600 unaccompanied kids who were placed on Long Island. And while that's happening, gang violence in the area tends to sort of flare up because you have suddenly more victims, more people who are socially marginalized who have just arrived in towns they don't know. Their parents are working multiple jobs. They feel isolated. They feel scared. They don't speak the language. These are easy targets for the gang both as victims and as recruits.

And again, it's complex because the people the gang targets as recruits are often coerced into joining. And so you kind of have all these different overlays now. And it makes it very, very hard to solve this problem when law enforcement and when the federal government use MS-13 as a way of portraying immigrant communities writ large as being crime ridden because the victims are stuck in these communities. And they end up being trapped between law enforcement on the one hand and the gangs that are victimizing them on the other.

GROSS: So these are kids who feel they have to protect themselves from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and that they have to protect themselves from MS-13, so they're very vulnerable.

BLITZER: You think about what these kids face every day. They go to schools where there's some gang members in their classes. They live on streets and in sort of small hamlets where gang members are their neighbors. Everywhere they look, gang members are part of their world. And, you know, they're trapped because, for example, if you look at what standards ICE - Immigration and Customs Enforcement - uses to arrest someone suspected of gang activity that the standards are extremely nebulous.

So we're talking about things like, OK, you were seen in the company of known gangsters. OK, well, if you go to school with someone like that, well, there you are. You're in the company of a known gangster. Oftentimes, clothes that kids wear are used against them as proof that they might be involved in the gangs.

So certain kinds of clothes - for a time, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, in conjunction with local police, were picking up kids who were wearing Chicago Bulls shirts and jerseys because, for a time, the gang - there was some crossover between gang members and that kind of garb because the horns on the Bulls insignia resembled the gang sign. But imagine showing up at a place not knowing better. The schools don't specify what clothes you can and can't wear. And then the next thing you know, you're wearing a shirt that somehow triggers the suspicion of immigration authorities and you end up in detention.

So the standards are extremely low for what gets you on ICE's radar in these kinds of contexts. And oftentimes these are the victims of gang activity. And so they're scared to report crime because they're seeing that immigration authorities are kind of cracking down in general on the undocumented population. So they're scared to come forward. They're scared to share tips that they see. There are probably - people living in these communities alongside these gangsters probably have the best information of anyone as to how the gang is operating, but they're increasingly driven into the shadows by this indiscriminate policing that is the result of all of this political rhetoric and kind of this new fixation on cracking down on the gang.

GROSS: So MS-13 is a gang that really is a menace. They really are dangerous. They really are putting other people at risk, most especially Salvadorans who are immigrants here legally or illegally. So what do you think are President Trump's biggest misrepresentations or exaggerations when he's using MS-13 as a talking point for his anti-immigration policies?

BLITZER: I think there's a lot of slippage in his language between talking about gang members and talking about immigrants. And so I would say that's the first big misrepresentation, that the president is using MS-13 as a stand in for immigrants generally. And so when he talks about the gang, it is generally understood that he's talking about immigrants. And that obviously completely misrepresents the situation.

GROSS: What else?

BLITZER: I think that his description of how the gang operates misrepresents the actual structure of the gang and misrepresents the specific ways in which the gang is dangerous. What makes MS-13 so hard to deal with is the fact that it's extremely decentralized. It tends to operate in these kind of almost autonomous local cliques that follow their own directives, that have their own sort of mini leadership structure. And so the more the president acts as though this is a carefully coordinated and highly sophisticated international - transnational operation, I think the more - the law enforcement response tends to misplay the way in which this gang takes root in communities.

So it would be a lot more useful, quite honestly, if law enforcement invested money and time in doing anti-gang outreach, improving counseling services at local schools, trying to provide avenues for people who are involved in the gang to transition out of the gang. You know, one thing, for example, that the president is so obsessed with - and this would be another answer to the question - is that the solution to solving the MS-13 problem if you were to believe Trump is you have to deport everyone. You cannot deport away this problem.

In fact, deporting gang members in the first place is what created the problem. And second of all, there is a critical mass of MS-13 members in the U.S. who are citizens. And so the gang itself is never going to go away unless you try to address the root causes of it, unless you try to address why certain marginalized members of the community end up joining this gang. You're always going to have this threat. And this threat has existed since well before Trump came into power. And you can watch over the years as the violence has spiked and then kind of ebbed. And oftentimes it's been the quieter, longer-term enforcement strategies that tend to curb the gang's spread.

But all of the president's hyperbole about the gang makes it worse. And I will also say that the more the president talks about how brutal and murderous the gang is - and the gang is brutal and the gang is murderous - but he is so obsessed with playing up the violence of the gang, the easier it is for the gang to recruit, the easier it is for the gang to intimidate people into joining or into being acquiescent.

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Blitzer, who writes about immigration for The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. And David Edelstein will review the new film "Black Panther." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jonathan Blitzer, who covers immigration for The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. He's written extensively about the predominantly-Salvadoran gang MS-13 which carries out gruesome acts of violence and tries to recruit teenagers who are undocumented. But Blitzer says President Trump, who often talks about MS-13 in his speeches, is using the gang as a stand-in for all immigrants, which misrepresents the situation. Blitzer has also been writing about DACA and the president's decision to terminate the program March 5 unless Congress passes legislation extending it. This week, the Senate has been debating overhauling the immigration system.

So if DACA is extended or if DACA is totally cancelled, what impact would that have on MS-13?

BLITZER: There is no relationship between DACA and MS-13. And that's, you know, that's another thing that the administration has done. And it's interesting. When the Trump administration canceled DACA in September of last year, the person who came out to make the announcement, it wasn't the president, who I think was too nervous about delivering a highly unpopular message because a lot of Americans are behind DACA recipients. And it wasn't the head of DHS - the Department of Homeland Security - which is the department in charge of administering DACA. It was Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, who represents the kind of ideological nerve center of the Trump administration on immigration. And one of the things that Jeff Sessions said was that we are canceling DACA because the program has lured people from Central America, these unaccompanied kids, to the U.S. because they see that there's a chance for them to get legalized through this program.

Now, that is wrong. All of the studies, all of the evidence, every form of research on this subject makes the case pretty clearly that people are fleeing to the U.S. not because they're lured by something like DACA, which none of them have ever heard of, but because they're fleeing gangs. But you hear the administration's effort to link the two issues. They're trying because there's really no justification for ending DACA, certainly no justification that, you know, helps the public interest in any way.

It's a program that benefits close to a million kids who have no criminal records at all, who have gone to school in the U.S., who have been living in the U.S. since they were small children. There is no connection whatsoever between DACA and MS-13. But the more the administration can kind of create this sort of general haziness over the issue of immigration writ large, I think the more they feel they have political capital to push off this DACA decision further.

GROSS: This would be a good time to ask you to explain what DACA is and who it applies to.

BLITZER: Sure. In 2012, President Obama issued an executive action creating this policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which is DACA. And there were roughly 1.8 million people who were eligible for this program. The idea was to protect people - immigrants - who were undocumented who came to the country as kids, who came illegally with their parents who were too young to have been kind of conscious of what the legal stakes of their entry into the U.S. were and who had made the U.S. their home ever since.

And there were very strict eligibility requirements, basically, for how you qualified for DACA. So you couldn't have any sort of criminal record. You had to have either been in school or had graduated from high school. And then there were a series of more specific requirements about how old you were at the time of the program, when you came to the U.S., those kinds of things designed to really hone the population that this protected.

And what DACA itself did was it gave its recipients what was called this kind of weird ad hoc legal status known as lawful presence. It established lawful presence for these people. And basically, what that meant was you can get work authorization so you can work legally. Now, that opens up all kinds of doors for people. That means they can qualify for bank loans. That means they can take out mortgages. For kids whose families were partly undocumented or who lived in mixed-status homes where some members were undocumented, others were citizens and some now had DACA, that meant that these kids could help support members of their family.

And importantly, it said Homeland Security, which is in charge of ICE - Immigration and Customs Enforcement - the Department of Homeland Security will not try to arrest you for deportation. So essentially, what DACA was a kind of elaborate form of prosecutorial discretion that the Obama administration created in 2012 to make sure that this population of people who are broadly sympathetic, who are American in every respect except for their legal status, could be sort of left alone and allowed to resume semi-normal lives.

GROSS: The reason why we're in this DACA crisis now is because President Trump created a March 5 deadline for DACA legislation, and if legislation isn't passed, the program would just end. It would be terminated. What was his stated goal for doing that?

BLITZER: My read on the situation is basically that the president wanted to appease his base in canceling DACA but that he himself had trouble doing something that was so obviously inhumane, for one thing, and that was so obviously unpopular for another. So he tried to kind of defer the decision. And the first thing he did was he canceled the program, but then he tried to force (ph) the issue onto Congress and say, look, this isn't my problem. The reason we're in this bind is because Congress never passed a law in the first place to handle this population. And so the first thing he had to do was...

GROSS: This was an executive decision.

BLITZER: Exactly. It was an executive action under President Obama. And so he creates this deadline ostensibly as a way to give Congress time to act. But that deadline itself is artificial. I mean, it's totally arbitrary that he's picked March 5. But there are also another set of deadlines that get a lot less publicity that have already passed and that already affect the lives of DACA recipients. So he cancels the program on September 5. He then says, look, for everyone who has DACA and whose DACA status expires before March 5, you now have starting September 5 one month to apply to renew your status.

Now, the administration doesn't make this particularly clear. A lot of people are uninformed about how little time they have to renew if their status were to expire before this March 5 deadline. So the first deadline the administration really creates is October 5. There are about 154,000 DACA recipients whose status expires before March 5. So of that population, they had to apply within a month's time to renew their status. It's costly to apply. It's close to $500 to apply to renew your status. Some people don't have that money just off the cuff like that. I think some people were scared that this administration kind of didn't really mean what it said in terms of offering this opportunity to extend. People had problems - I mean, administrative problems having to process their application so quickly.

So someone maybe - I spoke to a girl who signed her form in the wrong place. And by the time she got notice that she needed to refile that signature, that October deadline had already passed. So after October 5, there were 20,000 people who had DACA before who now didn't have it. So already you're talking about 120 people a day who are losing status. And what do I mean by status? I mean the ability to work legally. And I also mean the ability to be sort of free of this fear of deportation. And so people are already losing their DACA status every day.

GROSS: On Tuesday of this week, a second federal judge ruled that President Trump hadn't offered sufficient legal reasons for ending DACA. What is that ruling about, and how is it affecting DREAMers?

BLITZER: Yeah. So right now, because of the injunction by a judge in California in January and now this judge in New York, the cancellation of DACA has been temporarily blocked. And so for DACA recipients who at the time the Trump administration canceled the program had status, they can reapply for the time being. It's unclear exactly what will happen. So later this week on Friday, the Supreme Court will hear a challenge brought by the Justice Department to try to lift that injunction and continue with the cancellation of DACA. But for the time being, what it means is if you had DACA before, you know, at the time that it was canceled, you can apply to renew your status.

And people are scared at this point of doing so just because, you know, say you changed your address in the last year, I don't know that you want this administration to have all of the details of where you live, especially given how aggressive ICE has been. But I think for the most part, it makes sense for people to apply to renew because every two years, essentially, you have to apply to renew your DACA status. And so this buys people some time. So that's kind of the state of play right now.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Blitzer, and he writes about immigration for The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. We're going to talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Blitzer, who covers immigration for The New Yorker, where he's a staff writer. So the possible outcomes for DACA are that it will be settled in Congress or in the courts or it will just end on March 5, President Trump's date to end the program. As part of a deal not to shut down the government a second time over the budget, Mitch McConnell agreed to allow one week of debate on DACA in which the Senate could write a bill from scratch. But President Trump has promised to veto any bill that doesn't address what he describes as his four pillars - building the wall, ending what he calls chain migration, which is basically allowing immigrants to bring in family members, ending the diversity visa lottery program and providing a path to citizenship for DREAMers.

So President Trump is saying no room for compromise; these four things or nothing; these four things or I veto it. You've said that at this point the debate really isn't about DACA. It's about legal immigration. What do you mean?

BLITZER: I think what's so striking about the turn the conversation has taken in Congress is that, you know, we're really no longer talking about whether or not it is fair or makes sense to legalize the so-called DREAMers. We're not talking about whether or not it makes sense to come up with a specific raft of border security measures. Instead, the real sticking point - and this is something the White House has pushed very aggressively from the start - is making major changes to the legal immigration system, a system that's been in place since 1965. And so the cost essentially that's being proposed for any negotiation on the status and future of DREAMers has become how far you're willing to go to overhaul certain aspects of the family-based immigration system.

And that's something that I really - I can't overstate how significant a shift that is in how these immigration debates are playing out. That is the result of Donald Trump and hard-liners in the White House really changing the terms of the debate in a profound way. It's a pretty significant revisioning of what immigration is about. And I think it has a lot to do with changing the composition of who comes to this country. I mean, it is nothing less profound than that.

GROSS: And how do you think the president wants to change the composition of who comes?

BLITZER: Well, I think since 1965, the people who have tended to come to the U.S. have less and less come - tended to come from, say, Western Europe. They tend to have come from Asia, from Latin America. And I think there is a certain racial composition to the new face of immigration to this country. And I think it's something that the White House ideologues and hard-liners have had a really hard time swallowing. And this is - you know, this is a battle that they've fought on the political fringes for years. And they've kind of been left out of the room. Now they actually have their hands on sort of the levers of power, and they can really drive the congressional debate around this issue.

So they're teaming up with people in the Senate who - you know, people like Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas, David Perdue of Georgia - who have proposed legislation that would essentially halve legal immigration as we know it. And these guys in the past have proposed things that seemed totally outlandish, that seemed like a total lark to have introduced into Congress because there'd be no support for it in either political party. But now, that really seems to be the kind of centerpiece of this new push. And the Trump administration has effectively taken DREAMers hostage as a way of trying to bargain and negotiate this particular position.

GROSS: Are there people in the Trump administration who are behind this no-compromise position that the president has taken?

BLITZER: I think this is all pretty clearly leading back to one person in particular, and that is the White House senior adviser, Stephen Miller. This is a vision that Stephen Miller has propounded from the start of his political career. It's something that he - you know, Stephen Miller began working in Jeff Sessions' office back when Jeff Sessions was the senator from Alabama. And the view of Miller, of Sessions, of other people of their ilk - that kind of small cadre of nativists who grew out of the Sessions office - is that, you know, nothing short of redrawing the legal immigration system would be sufficient in the way of reform, that we have to significantly ramp up enforcement measures. The cancellation of DACA leads back to these guys. They're - it's quite incredible the power they now wield.

GROSS: So because of DACA hanging in the balance here, because the Senate has a week to debate a bill and because we have the March 5 deadline for DACA that President Trump laid down, the president is basically saying here's a few days to revamp the whole immigration system.

BLITZER: Yeah. I mean, it's...

GROSS: I mean, it's a huge thing to do in a few days, and there's so much at stake.

BLITZER: Yeah. And, you know, it's interesting. In the past, the thinking on this was - and this was establishment wisdom in actually the Republican Party most specifically - if you're going to make changes to the immigration system, if you're going to attempt any form of revamping or overhauling the immigration system, particularly with regard to a population as sympathetic as the DREAMers, you need to propose incremental revamping or overhauling the immigration system, particularly with regard to a population as sympathetic as the DREAMers, you need to propose incremental solutions.

So in the past, it would be, OK, pair legalization of DREAMers with an increase in border security measures. You know, the idea was, on the one hand, something that sort of seemed more liberalizing, on the other, something that kind of tightened enforcement. It was always very narrowly drawn. Now what's on the table is nothing short of a complete overhaul of our immigration system. And the idea that this would somehow take place in a week's time after months of stalled negotiations on an even narrower question is ridiculous.

GROSS: Any guesses what the outcome's going to be?

BLITZER: It does not seem likely that any of the proposals on the table have enough support to clear the 60-vote threshold that is necessary for a bill to basically overcome debate in the Senate and move on to the House. I think some of the plans might actually come close to getting that kind of number. I think there is a growing kind of coalition of bipartisan senators who are offering an alternative to the White House plan. It's hard to see that group getting to 60, which is the threshold, precisely because the White House has been so aggressive in denouncing that approach.

But I certainly think it's fair to say - in fact, arguably, the surest thing that can be said at this point is that the White House-Chuck Grassley-Tom Cotton plan - this kind of harder-line vision - absolutely does not have enough votes to pass at the Senate. The question is whether by proposing in the first place they've effectively sunk any prospect of a deal.

GROSS: So I guess if Congress doesn't move forward with legislation on DACA, then one of two things can happen. The Supreme Court can uphold the two federal judges' injunction against President Trump's termination of DACA, or President Trump's termination of DACA could hold, and, like, that's it on March 5.

BLITZER: That's right. And I think the Supreme Court decision this week - it's largely, I think, a procedural question. So the issue before the Supreme Court is, you know, can the Supreme Court issue a stay and lift the injunction of these federal judges? Certainly, the Trump administration wants the Supreme Court to say that. I think the Supreme Court most likely will say, look, you have skipped over the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In this case, what kind of gave rise to the Supreme Court's hearing of this issue was that judge in California issuing the injunction, and so the relevant body then that the administration would have to go to in order to reverse that injunction would be a court of appeals, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Trump administration tried to skip that step, and so the Supreme Court most likely will say, look, you have to go to the 9th Circuit, and this issue will have to play out kind of in the courts first before we weigh in. That's what I expect will happen. It's conceivable that because Congress has reached this impasse on how to deal with the situation, there will be a kind of temporary measure that, you know, maybe extends DACA for, you know, a few years, probably until after the 2018 midterms. But it's not clear even what the political will is to get behind that. So we really are in a kind of dangerous position with regard to DACA.

GROSS: So if DACA ends on March 5, what happens?

BLITZER: So if there's no solution, if Congress just strikes out, what will start to happen is on March 6, you'll have every day from that moment forward - people who have DACA will start to lose their status. And so...

GROSS: Because they have two-year status, and when that two years expires, they'll lose their status.

BLITZER: Exactly. And it wasn't like everyone applied for DACA at the same time, too, so it's all staggered. And so, you know, you'll have roughly the pace of a thousand people a day. You will have people for every day there on out losing their status.

GROSS: Jonathan Blitzer, thank you so much for talking with us.

BLITZER: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Jonathan Blitzer is a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers immigration. After a break, David Edelstein will review the new superhero film "Black Panther," based on the Marvel comic about an African king. This is FRESH AIR.

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