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Democrats Are Doing the Right Thing

Capitulating on DACA would mean abdicating the party’s moral responsibilities.

On the second day of the first government shutdown of Donald Trump’s presidency, one narrative began to rise above the rest: Blame the Democrats. Republican lawmakers and Trump advisers blitzed the airwaves on Sunday to explain why Senate Democrats’ demand for a DACA fix tethered to a funding bill is irresponsible and unreasonable. (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an Obama-era executive policy that allows undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children to live and work here legally. Last September, the Trump administration announced that it would phase out the program.) Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, proclaimed that “we want to … solve the DACA issue,” but that Democrats’ incorrigibility made the task impossible. Trump claimed that Democrats “are holding our Military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration.”

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This spin is laughably inaccurate. Four Senate Republicans voted against a bill to keep the government open on Friday; a majority of Democrats simply chose not to bail out the measure since it included no DACA solution. The blame falls primarily on GOP party leadership—which is in thrall to a nativist minority—as well as the White House’s hopelessly mixed signals.
But even if the narrative sticks and Democrats take the fall for this shutdown, they made the right call by refusing to prop up the GOP’s stopgap funding bill. The administration has negotiated over DACA in bad faith from the very start, and Democrats may never have more leverage than they do today. Standing up for DACA may wind up being bad politics. For the Democratic Party, it is also a moral obligation.

At various points in the DACA debate, all sides have pointed to Donald Trump as the chief impediment to a deal. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently admitted that Trump “has not yet indicated what measure he is willing to sign,” and that the GOP can’t “figure out what he is for.” But it’s not actually fair to blame Trump alone for this disaster; the president is plainly uninterested in the details of a final deal—and, more importantly, he did not force Congress’ hand on DACA in the first place.

In reality, DACA’s demise was the result of maneuvering between state attorneys general and United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Last June, a coalition of 10 state attorneys general, as well as Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, signed a letter threatening to sue the administration if it did not take action on DACA. (Needless to say, all signatories were Republicans.) Their letter gave the administration an ultimatum: Begin phasing out DACA on Sept. 5, or we’ll attempt to kill it in court.

One signatory, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III, actually withdrew his signature upon discovering that many DACA recipients “will be of great benefit and service to our country.” But the rest stood fast, and on Sept. 5, Sessions announced that the government would begin to “wind down” DACA, halting renewals in October and stripping status starting in March 2018. (Sessions has refused to state whether he colluded with these state attorneys general to justify the rescission of the program, and the Supreme Court’s conservative justices have allowed the administration to shield documents that may reveal such collusion.)

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Sessions’ Sept. 5 announcement injected a great deal of ambiguity into the White House’s position on “Dreamers,” or DACA beneficiaries. Trump had praised Dreamers during the campaign, and DACA’s Republican critics tended to condemn the program as executive overreach rather than lambaste immigrants themselves. But Sessions’ speech dripped with malice toward Dreamers, disparaging them as “illegal aliens” who steal jobs from real Americans. It suddenly sounded like the Trump administration opposed DACA as policy, not merely its executive implementation.

Yet Trump himself clearly maintained his support for a measure sparing Dreamers from deportation. Hours after Sessions’ address, the president tweeted that if Congress couldn’t “legalize DACA,” he would “revisit this issue.” (He seemed to believe that he could revive the policy that his attorney general had just dismissed as illegal “unilateral executive amnesty.”) Nine days later, Trump asked, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” But congressional Republicans took no action, pointing out that DACA does not expire until March 5. (In reality, due to Sessions’ “phase-out,” about 122 Dreamers lose protection each day.)

Since then, this dynamic—Trump backs Dreamers, Republicans hinder action—has played out in various ways. In September, for instance, Trump allegedly told Democratic leaders that he wouldn’t tie a DACA fix to funding for his border wall, but White House staffers promptly reneged on whatever compromise Trump had made behind closed doors. And on Friday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer outlined a deal with Trump, which McConnell and chief of staff John Kelly promptly thwarted. The president is an inept dealmaker, but his basic desire is clear: He wants to sign some version of a DREAM Act.

Republicans, however, are doing everything in their power to prevent a bill from landing on his desk. The bad faith here is staggering. McConnell secured Sen. Jeff Flake’s vote for tax reform in December by promising to bring a compromise immigration bill to the floor in January. Senators quickly struck a bipartisan DACA deal—but GOP Senate leaders scuttled it, citing Trump’s apparent opposition. (As if anyone, including Trump, knows what the president would do if handed an immigration bill with concessions from both parties.) On Sunday, House Speaker Paul Ryan declared that Republicans were “negotiating in good faith on DACA,” accusing Democrats of blowing up deliberations by demanding a DACA fix alongside any spending bill.

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“Negotiating in good faith”? House Republicans’ current DACA proposal would literally criminalize Dreamers who fail to stay significantly above the poverty line, subjecting them to imprisonment and deportation. Senate Republicans’ proposal would give Dreamers a nonrenewable three-year visa, essentially giving them a 36-month grace period before they have to leave (or get deported). Other GOP hard-liners are insisting that any help for Dreamers be attached to dramatic reductions in legal immigration levels, a nonstarter for many Democrats and Republicans.

Faced with intra-party discord and malevolent prevarication from Republicans, what are Democrats to do about DACA? Rely on more easily broken promises from Ryan, McConnell, and the White House? Go along with the lie that Dreamers can wait until March for relief? Surrender altogether to the whims of a Republican Party dominated by serial fibbers? Of course not. The first DREAM Act was introduced in 2001. Republicans have foiled its passage for 17 years. At some point, Democrats had to draw a line in the sand. That moment arrived on Friday.

A government shutdown is an awful thing. It’s a humiliation for the nation that disrupts hundreds of thousands of lives, and it may well provoke backlash against progressives. But Democrats had no other choice. Republicans cannot be trusted to protect Dreamers from a crisis of the GOP’s own making. To capitulate on DACA would be an abdication of the Democratic Party’s moral responsibilities. Dreamers belong in this country, and Democrats should use every bit of leverage they have to keep them here.

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