DACA: A crisis for Dreamers and the country

Photo by Tommaso Galli, https://www.flickr.com/photos/tommy-ironic/, under a creative commons license for non-commercial use.

Opinion about the anatomy of the government shutdown, its short-term hopes and long-term concerns.

On Jan. 19, the Democrats voted to take the government hostage by refusing to approve a stopgap measure for continued funding.

It was gratifying to think Democrats had real power at a time when Republicans hold all the cards. For a moment, it seemed possible that things could be different.

  • That Republicans might be forced to join with Democrats to create a permanent solution for immigrant youth after the Trump administration ended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, on Sep. 5.
  • That the will of a majority of voters–both Democratic and Republican who back legal status for Dreamers–might be realized.
  • That a clean DACA solution might emerge without hawkish anti-immigrant measures being attached as the price for a deal.
  • That Dreamers might be free to pursue their dreams.

But on Jan. 22, the Democrats voted to release the hostage, even though their demands had not been met.  

Did the Democrats surrender? Did they roll over, thereby missing an opportunity to implement important legislation, failing their base, and betraying Dreamers in the process? While many express their keen disappointment in the party, I find I agree with the Democrats’ decision.

As things stand, the government is temporarily funded through Feb. 8. This continuing resolution extends the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) through FY 2023, delays the medical device tax for two years, delays the “Cadillac” tax for two years, and suspends the health insurance tax for one year. It also ended a three-day government shutdown.

There is a verbal commitment from Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to bring a DACA bill to the Senate floor for a vote before Feb. 9. Previously McConnell had said he would not introduce legislation unless it had been first approved by President Trump.

But Speaker Paul Ryan has made no promise to introduce DACA legislation in the House. And Democrats have made no promise to abstain from taking the government hostage again.There is no assurance of a fair outcome for Dreamers. At best, there is some assurance of a fair process. But this is no comfort for Dreamers, who feel abandoned and do not have the luxury of time while politicians squabble.

What happened? After discussions between President Trump and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Democrats were reportedly willing to make a $20 billion downpayment on a border wall, a symbol of immigration extremism, in exchange for an otherwise clean DACA bill.

But conservative immigration hardliners–White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, and Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.)–overrode the proposal, claiming to better understand the president’s policy intentions.

When Trump wanders from the path of “a race-based, religion-based immigration policy that prioritizes white Christians over people of color and Muslims, the hard-liners are quick to guide him back on course,” says Washington Post opinion writer Eugene Robinson in a column entitled, Trump is being used, and he doesn’t even know it.

In the blame game, I agree with Catherine Rampell, opinion writer for the Washington Post. “It was always the #McConnellRyanShutdown.”

“McConnell and Ryan, after all, not only lead the majority party. They also control the legislative agenda. They determine which bills come up for a vote and when. And they knew far in advance the drop-dead deadlines for keeping the government funded. They also knew the Democrats’ conditions for cooperating.”

But, Rampell argues, McConnell and Ryan chose to do nothing. Worse than nothing, they were totally irrelevant. Worse than totally irrelevant, they were “actively destructive.”

“For some people on the right, they’re discovering they care about the culture wars more than they care about a constitutional democracy.”

~David From

Senior editor at The Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush

But Democrats did the right thing, I believe.

First, continuing the shutdown held no assurance of a good legislative outcome. And the overall political costs and benefits were also unclear.

Second, while the political leverage of a government shutdown remains, the urgency of a DACA fix by March 5 has passed.

March 5 was the date when the Trump administration would no longer accept DACA applications. But a federal district court decision on Jan. 9 combined with subsequent decisions by the U.S. Department of Justice have given DACA a temporary reprieve into the summer and perhaps later depending on actions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Third, any DACA legislation that manages to get through the House and the Senate must ultimately be signed by the president, whose bargaining style makes people across the table feel like they’re “negotiating with jello,” according to Schumer.

“It’s next to impossible. As soon as you take one step forward, the hard-right forces the president three steps back,” Schumer said.

If the DACA legislation is the product of publicly forcing the president and his party into a corner, then what are the chances he will sign under such duress?  The president is, in the words of novelist Philip Roth, “a massive fraud…devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.” There is no reason to think a megalomaniac could be coerced to sign.

Fourth, government shutdowns have a history of hurting the hostage-taking party more than their opponents. Do current circumstances suggest a different outcome? I don’t think so.

Fifth, it would be bad for American politics in the long-run if Democrats–the party that believes in government–adopted the strategies of obstructionists who want to shrink government and eventually drown it in a bathtub, in the infamous locution of anti-tax conservative Grover Norquist.

“The central political problem in American life, for years now, has been that the Republican Party is a dysfunctional institution that has abandoned principles of decent governance in order to please an ever more extreme base,” argues Ezra Klein, the editor-at-large and founder of Vox.

“But it would be doubly bad if their outrageous behavior drives Democrats to use the same tactics in response.”

“When highly committed parties strongly believe [in] things that they cannot achieve democratically, they don’t give up on their beliefs–they give up on democracy,” says David Frum, author, conservator editor at The Atlantic, and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

While Republicans as a party have not yet given up on democracy, he says, “for some people on the right, they’re discovering they care about the culture wars more than they care about a constitutional democracy.”

By Mike Brown, mbrown.c4ad@gmail.com