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.
The counterargument is that Democrats took funding for CHIP out of the equation in exchange for three weeks of government funding, and can use their leverage again early next month if McConnell doesn’t follow through with a vote on a humane iteration of the Dream Act. The problem with that argument is that having folded once, Republicans feel that they have the upper hand, and it’s hard to see vulnerable Democratic senators agreeing to shut down the government again on February 8.
From Democrats’ perspective, there’s limited upside, because even if they stand tall and get an acceptable bill through the Senate, the true obstacle to a decent Dream Act rests in the House. They’re not wrong. The day after the Senate voted to reopen the government, Representative Steve Scalise, the majority whip, said, “We’re not going to pass a bill that has amnesty. There are things that would anger our base that I don’t see us passing in the House.” There are probably enough votes for a relatively clean Dream Act in both chambers, but Speaker Paul Ryan is unlikely to defy his hardliners and bring a bill to the floor. And yesterday, the White House rolled out a proposal to offer the Dreamers a path to citizenship—spun by anti-immigration hardliners as “amnesty”—in exchange for “pretty much everything conservative immigration restrictionists have even thought about asking for,” as New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore put it. The Dreamers’ real problem is that Republicans from deep-red districts worry more about a primary challenge from a Trumper on their right—and therefore how Breitbart spins the issue—than about the general public’s support for the Dreamers. It’s possible that Trump himself could change that equation, but according to reports, he’s being counseled by white nationalists like Steve Miller.
Schumer’s already rejected the White House’s poison pill-laden proposal, and it’s not clear what’s next. Even if Schumer can get his caucus to shut down the government a second time, it’s not going to compel the House to hold a vote, and the fact that House Republicans are signaling that “amnesty” is DOA in the lower chamber is a disincentive for vulnerable Democratic senators to take another bite at that apple.
The Dreamers and their advocates are ultimately in a tough quandary. It’s quite possible that an acceptable Dream Act will only be possible if Democrats can win one chamber of Congress in November. The movement’s coalesced around a strategy of calling out the Dems for their ostensible lack of spine, hoping that if they can get a bill through the Senate, public opinion will force the House to follow. But if they hit that message too hard, they could end up dampening turnout for the midterms.
If Trump were more calculating, and not a raging id lurching from position to position based on whatever the last person tells him, one might suspect that this kind of discord was his goal when he killed DACA in the first place.