On Tuesday, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer told Rachel Maddow that if Republicans refuse to play ball on a humane Dream Act, “the awful, awful, awful pictures of DREAMers being deported” would ultimately “rally the nation” to their cause and force the GOP’s hand.
He may be right, but seeing Dreamers ripped away from their lives and sent “home” to countries they never knew is not an acceptable outcome for immigrant communities and their progressive allies. There’s a fundamental disconnect between congressional Democrats’ political calculus, right or wrong, and the sense of emergency—of being under siege by white nationalists empowered by the full force of the federal government—that’s driving immigrant communities and their allies to see this as the fight of their lives.
For many on the left, the Dreamers are a proxy in the larger battle to beat back Trump’s noxious brand of white ethnonationalism. It isn’t just a matter of temporary legal status for people who were brought to this country as kids without the proper paperwork. It’s also about ICE snatching up people with deep ties to their communities in courthouses and hospitals and schools. It’s about people suddenly disappearing and families being torn apart. It’s hard for those of us who came to this country generations ago to fully appreciate the visceral sense of foreboding—even terror—that comes with knowing that you or the people you love are at risk of being scooped up by ICE agents at any moment of the day or night. Since many recent immigrants live in mixed-status homes—and certainly neighborhoods—it’s a threat felt by millions of Americans citizens and legal immigrants.
Immigrant communities are demanding that Dems mount a fight that’s commensurate with what they rightly see as an existential threat. Democrats, on the other hand, are treating it like any other legislative battle. While activists want them to fight as if they’re challenging the Fugitive Slave Act, they’re trying to figure out what pressure points they can apply to a party that controls everything and weighing the potential costs and benefits of going to the mat for “illegals,” as it’s been portrayed on Fox News.
Given that disconnect, it’s no surprise that progressive groups like Credo and Moveon are trashing Dems for backing down from their shutdown fight after three short days and without any guarantees of a Dream Act. Calling Schumer “the worst negotiator in Washington,” Credo accused him of “cav[ing] to the white supremacist base of Trump’s Republican Party and [leading] the Senate Democrats to a total surrender.”
One line of criticism seems tough to deny: Dems reportedly could have gotten six years of pared-down funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and a vague promise from Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to move forward with a bill to protect the Dreamers on Friday, before they shuttered the government. Having pulled the trigger, they folded their hand prematurely, spooked, according to The Washington Post, by their own polling, which found “that in more conservative states, blame for a shutdown would be split between Trump and Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But when interviewers asked respondents about a shutdown that might be tied to the legal status of dreamers, Democrats absorbed more blame.” That appears to have been a misread of popular opinion; as MoveOn’s Ben Winkler points out, tracking polls show that “ voters swinging toward the view that the fight over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was worth a shutdown, from an even 42-42 split beforehand to a favorable 47-38 once the shutdown had started.” Trump is the least popular president in modern history, and that shapes public opinion in a way that elected Democrats don’t seem to fully grasp. At a minimum, they should have waited to see how the fight was playing out before throwing in the towel.