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Democrats, It’s Now Or Never For Dreamers

The proximity of Friday’s deadline to fund the government and the subsequent deadline to codify the legal status of Dreamers has exposed a source of political tension in the Democratic Party.

Most progressives, including senators eyeing 2020 White House bids, are refusing to support continued funding for the federal government unless Congress first or simultaneously creates protected status for Dreamers—immigrants brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were minors. Republicans need Democratic votes to keep their government open, protecting Dreamers should be the price. 

Senators standing for reelection in Trump states, by contrast, would like to untangle immigration and appropriations because they worry a government shutdown pegged to Trump’s signature issue will doom their campaigns.

From their perspective, Congress can and should legislate a solution for Dreamers, but not unless the possibility of a government shutdown has passed. 

“We’ve got people running for president all trying to find their base, and then you’ve got people from Trump states that are trying to continue to legislate the way we always have — by negotiation,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO). “And never the twain shall meet.”

These kinds of divisions aren’t uncommon in party politics, and it’s usually hard to say with much certainty which faction has the better argument. In this case it’s very easy: The senators who are resisting pressure to tie protection for Dreamers to government funding are laboring under the misperception that Republicans in Congress sincerely want to give Dreamers legal status in the United States, and that they will cut a deal when they are not under duress.

It’s been months since President Trump voluntarily terminated President Obama’s 2012 deferred action program for childhood arrivals. Every day, more and more DACA recipients are becoming subject to deportation; the protracted nature of this legislative fight has imposed real costs on their communities. Even if you wish away these ancillary harms, the view that Democrats shouldn’t maximize their leverage now is wrong because the alternative isn’t actually available. The choice isn’t between a shutdown fight now and a Dream Act fight later; it’s between the Dream Act now or not at all.

The Republican legislative strategy in the Trump era has leaned heavily on deception and bad faith. In the GOP’s telling, Obamacare repeal wouldn’t kick people off of their health insurance, and their corporate tax cut bonanza was driven by deep concern for middle-class interests.

The GOP position on Dreamers is no different.

Cornyn is the second most powerful Republican in the Senate. The implication of his tweet is that the bipartisan bill Trump derided a week ago as a boon to immigrants from “shithole countries” doesn’t meet the goals listed in his second sentence. In truth, the bill he and Trump are rejecting would do exactly what Cornyn lays out as the ultimate goal: increase border security spending, end the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, the whole deal.

What it would not do is reduce overall levels of immigration into the country, or prioritize immigration from white-majority countries, so it does not fly with Trump, and, thus, does not fly with the Republican congressional leadership.

This is not hyperbole, but the story isn’t much better if you abstract Trump from the picture. When White House aides got wind that Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) were heading to the White House last Thursday to pitch Trump on their DACA deal, they put out an emergency call for immigration restrictionists, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) to beat the bipartisan reformers to the punch. But the truth is, Republican congressional leaders have been outsourcing immigration policy to the Cottons and Goodlattes of their party since long before Trump took it over.

Trump terminated DACA administratively, but before that Republican state attorneys general sued to block it in court. Before that, House Republicans—with the full support of the Senate Republican leadership—blocked a bipartisan 2013 bill that would have legalized Dreamers as part of a broader plan to reform the immigration system and provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants. Before that, Senate Republicans filibustered a 2010 version of the DREAM Act, which would have obviated the need for DACA in the first place.

When Republican leaders say they want a solution for Dreamers, they do so with as much credibility as when they say they’re motivated to cut corporate taxes and welfare on account of their deep commitment to alleviating poverty.

It is possible to force Republicans to vote for things they otherwise oppose, but doing that requires leverage, and leverage stems from situations where Democrats can confront Republicans with a choice between bills they oppose and other outcomes they despise. In 2013, when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives alone, many of them voted to let special George W. Bush-era tax cuts for high-income earners expire, but only under credible threat of a much larger automatic tax increase. Today, they control the entire government, but cannot appropriate the funds required to keep it open without Democratic votes. Democrats are not obligated to vote to keep the government open on Republican terms, which will include exposing DACA recipients to deportation. They can trade their votes for substantive demands, and thus confront Republicans with a choice between protecting Dreamers and showing the country that, despite complete control of the political branches, they can’t meet basic governing obligations.

In-cycle Democrats worry they will be blamed for a shutdown. I think that’s very unlikely. In 2013, Republicans shut down the government by refusing to pass any appropriations legislation that didn’t destroy the Affordable Care Act. That bears only superficial similarity to today’s circumstances, because back then Republicans controlled the House of Representatives and were attempting to impose their agenda on the country, under threat of national harm. Today, Republicans run the whole operation. At a baseline level, they can’t fund the government on their own, and are asking Democrats to bail them out. Under the circumstances, Democrats are well within their rights to make negotiating demands. 

But even if I’m wrong about the politics, Dreamers deserve to know whether the country, and by extension the Congress, will forsake them under duress. If the government shuts down and the politics shake out in a way that vindicates the Republican view that the government should start deporting Dreamers, then at least the fight will have been joined. By contrast, if Democrats and Republicans team up to avoid that reckoning, it is nearly certain that Republicans will quietly return to their longstanding but unstated opposition to protecting Dreamers, the Trump administration will begin deporting them, and Democrats will have no good answers for those caught up in the sweeps.

This article has been updated.


Get To Work

Republicans in Congress are under the gun to avert a government shutdown, and they need Democrats to vote with them. Help us make sure that Senate Democrats will not vote for a full spending bill unless it includes protection for Dreamers and children who need health insurance.

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