CNN  — 

America is heading for a moment of reckoning as the results of more than a year’s worth of hardline Trump administration immigration measures pile up, raising questions fundamental to the character of the nation itself.

A shock-and-awe sequence of policy moves and legal gambits, many by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, may elevate immigration past the Russia investigation and the accelerating economy into an issue with the capacity to shape the midterm elections. It also is spurring congressional leaders from the President’s party – who did not want another immigration fight this year – to vote and go on the record on what is often a politically perilous subject.

The moves in many cases are the logical culmination of a presidential campaign rooted in Donald Trump’s willingness to demagogue immigration controversies in order to inflame his conservative voting base. They are the product of 17 months of work by Sessions, and White House immigration czar Stephen Miller, that is starting to fundamentally change the immigration system and America’s treatment of many people who come from abroad, with or without authorization.

To many Trump voters, the rapid pace of change will be seen as a validation of the vote they cast for the President back in 2016. Trump made a case that previous Republican and Democratic leaders had failed to enforce immigration laws and made an implicit argument that the nature of American culture and society were under threat from an influx of newcomers.

But news coverage of children being taken from parents who had crossed the border illegally and the increasing human and economic implications of the administration’s assault on legal immigration are beginning to merge into political arguments about tough Trump stances.

“I just go back to week one of the Trump administration – those first two-three executive orders that the President signed – they were the foundation on which everything that we are seeing being executed right now is built,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonprofit advocacy organization for immigrants and immigration. “All those things are coming to a head right now.”

Increasingly there is debate not just about the policy implications of the administration’s actions, but also whether they square with the humanitarian and moral standards that America has historically set for itself – even among some evangelicals who strongly back the President.


In recent days, the administration has acted aggressively to enact its tough immigration agenda and the human consequences of Trump’s earlier executive orders become increasingly clear.

Sessions has cracked down on rules on asylum, potentially reducing claims by the thousands by deciding that victims of domestic and gang violence are not eligible for protection.

The Justice Department said late last Friday that it would not defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in a Texas lawsuit, potentially opening an eventual path to a Supreme Court ruling on the fate of young undocumented immigrants brought to the US as kids.

Sessions has also pressured judges to increase their workloads to accelerate the pace of deportations.

The Department of Health and Human Services has said that some military bases in Texas are being assessed as possible holding centers for unaccompanied migrant children.

At the southern border, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras sobbed as she said federal officials had taken her infant daughter as she breastfed her, highlighting the administration’s policy mandating the separation of families who cross the border illegally.

The Department of Homeland Security is vigorously cutting the numbers of people from 10 nations, including El Salvador and Haiti, who live and work in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status covering nations hit by famine, war or national disasters. In May, nearly 90,000 Hondurans lost their status, meaning they could be forced to go back home.

Then there are multiple, but less visible, ways that the Trump administration is trying to curb legal immigration: lowering refugee admissions, targeting H1-B visas for skilled foreign workers and introducing more restrictions and red tape for other classes of entry permits.

All in all, the flurry of activity adds up to another set of promises kept for Trump that he can lay before his most loyal voters as he pleads with them to go to the polls in November to stave off a Democratic wave that could crimp his room to maneuver as President.

Capitol Hill imbroglio

But there are growing signs that the emotive immigration debate and the questions it raises about American values do not automatically add up to a big win for the President.

An imbroglio in the House of Representatives over an attempt by moderate Republicans to force a vote on securing protections for DACA recipients shows how some GOP lawmakers fear the hardline administration positions could damage them as they fight for re-election.

A Republican leadership compromise could allow conservatives to vote on a tough immigration bill but also proposes a compromise measure that Trump could support if it honors his four policy pillars: a solution for DACA recipients, border security financing and changes to border protocol, and ending parts of family based migration and the visa lottery.

The President’s demands probably mean the bill still will not be able to pass the Senate and is most likely to end up underlining Congress’s failure to act meaningfully on immigration.

But the fact that the Republican leadership is willing to hold votes on such a toxic issue months before Election Day is a testament to how immigration is barging its way up the political agenda.

The one thing that could break the logjam is a concentrated intervention by the President. And Miller was on Capitol Hill Wednesday and told Republicans the White House is open to the compromise package. Still, the President has vowed to fix the DACA issue and to throw his weight behind legislation before only to fail to live up to his promise.

Democrats, meanwhile, are emboldened, viewing the increasingly visible humanitarian consequences of the Trump administration’s policies as an opening to broaden an assault on the President and enliven their own base voters.

“Our moral compass has gone astray and I will continue to speak out against this injustice until the administration realizes this is not who we should be as Americans,” said Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, referring to the asylum rules and treatment of children crossing the border.

At a weekly Democratic leadership meeting, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley of New York painted a picture of children being ripped from their mothers’ arms at the border.

“If that is not psychological torture, I don’t know what is,” Crowley said, branding the policy an “abomination” and an “indelible mark on the soul of our nation.”

Dissent from evangelicals

There was also rising criticism for the implications of the administration’s immigration push from unusual quarters.

Evangelist Franklin Graham, who is close to Trump, slammed the separation of parents and children who had crossed the border illegally.

“It’s disgraceful, it’s terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit,” said Graham on CBN News on Wednesday, blaming politicians over 30 years for failing to act.

Hours earlier another key evangelical voice, the Southern Baptist Convention, passed a resolution calling on the government to implement a “just and compassionate path” to legal status for undocumented immigrants once borders had been secured.

It also declared that any form of “nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ” in a statement that could be seen as criticism of some of the sentiments that have helped Trump’s immigration policies prosper.

All this is a long way from a backlash against the administration’s approach, and it is not clear if it will open a seam of opposition in the evangelical bloc, which was a vital component of Trump’s winning coalition in 2016.

But Noorani argued that in the end, shifting sentiments of more moderate Trump voters and independents could be as important in molding the politics surrounding the administration’s immigration policies as the strong mobilization they whip up on the left.

“We surmised and we predicted that over time it would be the Trump voters at the end of the day who were going to start asking the most important questions,” he said.