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Democrats’ Dreamer Debacle

When the three-day government shutdown began on Friday at midnight, the blame game ensued immediately. President Trump vs. the Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer. Trump called it the #SchumerShutdown, and Schumer called it the #TrumpShutdown—such creative hashtags. During the shutdown, the Trump campaign released an ad calling Democrats complicit in any future murders committed by undocumented immigrants. Americans across the country responded by marching by the hundreds of thousands—against Trump, but also in salute of Democrats, and the GOP senators who voted against another short-term extension to fund the government. In doing so, those senators stood up to protect Dreamers—young, undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as children, by no choice of their own. Over the course of the weekend, polls found support for the Democrats’ position improving, day by day. With public sentiment aligning behind them, they folded on Monday, after less than 72 hours.

Much of the progressive left erupted in anger at what they saw as Democrats caving without securing what so many of their supporters wanted them to fight for—a permanent solution for Dreamers. Some, like Matt Fuller of HuffPost made a case for ”The Democratic Cave.”  Fuller argues that Democrats did get something in exchange for ending the shutdown: stronger language from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, including a public promise to begin a floor debate on a bipartisan Dreamer bill in the coming days. If McConnell keeps his promise, and a bill for Dreamers clears the Senate, but House Speaker Paul Ryan does not bring a bill to floor of the House, then Ryan (and Republicans in general) may well be blamed for another shutdown in February. Fuller tells us Democrats were worried that an extended shutdown could damage public perception of Dreamers, making it more difficult for Dems to negotiate.

I disagree with this thinking.

It is true, as Fuller writes, that the next shutdown fight might end differently, and more auspiciously, than this last one. But his argument omits key variables, which are the source of progressives’ frustration with Democrats.

First, the backdrop. Dreamers understand better than anyone that the GOP has been the more hostile of the two parties. But that doesn’t mean Democrats have been unflinching allies. When Schumer told Rachel Maddow Tuesday night that “Democrats are all for Dreamers, and to get in a circular firing squad and shoot at Democrats when we don’t have the power, and we have to use the limited power we have in as strategic a way as we can, that’s what makes sense: focusing on the Republicans,” he belied history.

Dreamer frustration and anger with Democrats didn’t begin on Monday. It comes from 17 years of waiting. The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001. In 2010, the DREAM Act failed in the Senate—yes, because of a Republican filibuster, but it was a filibuster that Democrats would have overcome, were it not for the fact that five of their own voted to sustain it. If the number had been four, Dreamers would enjoy legal status today. That bears an uncanny resemblance to what happened Friday when five Democrats crossed the aisle, and gave Republicans a 50th vote to fund the government without protecting Dreamers. Had all or most of those Democrats held firm, the Republican spending plan would have failed with a minority of votes, and Republicans would have lost the argument that the only thing keeping the government shuttered was a Democratic filibuster. Democrats, again, supplied Republicans the ammunition they needed to kill Dreamer dreams.

Even if we assume that by folding, Democrats have secured Senate passage of legislation to protect Dreamers in February, that gives Dreamers nothing more than false hope. The notion that Ryan will bring a stand-alone bill up for a vote simply because the Senate has passed it is naive and ignores history. The 2013 Senate immigration reform bill that passed the Senate died for the same reason Dreamer legislation is likely to die in February: then-House Speaker John Boehner never brought the Senate bill to the House floor. He allowed a restrictionist minority to kill the bill by threatening his speakership, and here we are still fighting so that young undocumented Americans can live, work, and be recognized as Americans.

The only kind of immigration bill Ryan will put on the floor is one Trump signs on to, and that means it’d likely include ransoms Democrats (rightly) would never pay. Trump terminated DACA, the program that gave Dreamers a two-year work permit and protected them from deportation, on September 5th. The smirk on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ face as he made the announcement that ended DACA told us just how happy he was to make the call. The goal was to end DACA so that Dreamers’ lives could be used as leverage to carry out the racist immigration agenda of Trump, Sessions, and Stephen Miller.

It’s ridiculous to assume that Democrats surrendered because they worried about public perception of Dreamers. Eighty percent of the American public supports a path to citizenship for Dreamers. No other issue has such overwhelming support. They surrendered because Democrats worried about losing their seats in red states where Trump won. On Tuesday we learned that one such senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, leaned on Schumer to cut Dreamers out of the short term funding deal by threatening not to run for reelection later this year. Had Manchin and Schumer stayed the course and trusted the Democratic base, they would have seen that America did not blame them for the shutdown, and the shutdown would likely have been resolved on terms that offer Dreamers real hope.

Instead, they showed they do not have the stomach to use leverage to make sure Dreamers aren’t further harmed. This is the biggest omission in Fuller’s piece: the fact that Democrats allowed their bluff to be called strengthens Republicans’ hand going into the next showdown. They will demand more than they would have, and hold the line harder, because they’ll believe, with good reason, that as the deadline approaches, Democrats will go wobbly.

Alternatively, Ryan will respond to whatever the Senate does by passing yet more short-term government funding legislation that does nothing for Dreamers, and McConnell will take it up, knowing there’s enough dissension in Democratic ranks to make them surrender.

Democrats caved and they did so because they miscalculated. But they continue to have leverage despite being the minority. Their votes are still needed to keep the government open after February 8th. They need to use that leverage to pass the cleanest possible version of a bill to help Dreamers.

They have asked us to trust them for seventeen years, and we’ve given them our support, our stories, and the votes of our families and allies who can vote. It is their turn to trust us that we will keep them safely in their seats, if they keep dreamers safely in their homes.

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