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The real reason DREAMers are at risk

Spoiler: It’s not Chuck Schumer.


The blame game has begun. Left-wing anger is growing at Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Senate Democrats for backing down on their threat to keep the government closed unless Congress agreed to some legislative protections for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

But it’s worth pointing out the obvious: Republicans are the people who have put the hundreds of thousands of DREAMers at risk.

It was mostly Republicans who killed comprehensive immigration reform in 2007; it was overwhelmingly Republicans who killed the DREAM Act in 2010; it was even more overwhelmingly Republicans who killed comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. It was a Republican president who canceled DACA in 2017, and it is exclusively Republicans who are blocking a wise and humane legislative replacement for DACA in 2018.

The real reason Schumer and Senate Democrats are struggling to secure help for DREAMers is that there are only 49 of them in a 100-person body (and you need 60 to pass legislation), their colleagues in the House are even more disempowered than they are, and the executive branch is controlled by people who are fundamentally hostile to the cause.

There are things that a determined Senate minority can do — like block big, filibusterable legislative changes. And on immigration policy, Senate Democrats are largely doing that. Trump and the immigration hawks among congressional Republicans want to make sweeping changes to American immigration policy. But they can’t because Senate Democrats won’t let them.

But a Senate minority can’t force the party that controls the House and the White House and the majority in the Senate to enact legislation they don’t want to enact. I’m not entirely sure why, exactly, Republicans leaders are so eager to ruin DREAMers’ lives but they do seem to be pretty determined. And that’s the core issue, not any question of legislative tactics.

Republicans have been blocking help for DREAMers for years

One oddity of the DACA debate is that some people have gotten so used to referring to the population of long-settled childhood arrivals as “kids” that they’ve forgotten we’ve been debating this so long that the kids have mostly grown up.

And all this time, the core of the issue has been that even though polls show providing help to the DREAMer population is very popular, the legislative dynamics keep working against them.

In 2007, when the immigration issue was less polarized along party lines, a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that included DREAM Act provisions was killed by bipartisan, but mostly Republican, opposition. Then in 2010, when the lame duck Democratic Congress tried to move a standalone DREAM Act as a down payment on broader immigration reform, five Senate Democrats joined the vast majority of Senate Republicans to filibuster a bill that had majority support.

Then in 2013, a bipartisan comprehensive package that, again, contained DREAM provisions passed the Senate with 68 votes. All indications were that it had majority support in the House of Representatives, but then-Speaker John Boehner wouldn’t allow it to come to the floor due to the Hastert Rule (which holds that only bills supported by a majority of the majority party’s members get a vote).

Between the 2010 and 2013 failures, the Obama White House came up with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program which gave most DREAM Act-eligible people the ability to obtain renewable work permits and formal protection from deportation. Since this was done through the executive branch alone, it was inherently unstable. It was also much less generous to DREAMers than the DREAM Act would have been, since executive action was unable to grant them permanent residency or a path to citizenship.

But precisely because DACA was relatively stingy, it met a core conservative objection to the DREAM Act: Since DACA didn’t create new citizens, it didn’t allow DREAMers to sponsor new visas for relatives. And as Vox’s Dara Lind detailed back in 2015, it fostered enormous concrete improvements in DREAMers’ lives. Then in September last year, Trump killed DACA, with the goal of ending it completely by March 5.

Republicans are shooting a hostage for no clear reason

At the time, the White House professed no actual policy objection to letting DREAMers continue to live, work, and study in the United States. They instead cited legal objections to Barack Obama’s unilateral creation of the program and professed a desire to exploit the need for a legislative fix to gain policy concessions on immigration.

Thus, one way to think of the standoff is like this:

  • Trump canceled DACA, taking DREAMers’ fate hostage to gain other immigration policy concessions.
  • Democrats threatened to block a short-term Continuing Resolution, taking the operation of the government hostage to gain DACA concessions.
  • Republicans blocked renewal of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), taking children’s health insurance hostage to gain concessions on the CR.

Over the weekend, the parties agreed to what amounts to a deescalation and limited release of hostages, reopening the government and funding CHIP for six years.

This was, absolutely, a tactical retreat on Schumer’s part that leaves the DREAMers extremely vulnerable. But not only is it unclear how pressing forward with a shutdown would have helped the DREAMers, the bigger issue is that it’s unclear what Republicans are hoping to accomplish by threatening them.

The DACA issue is important to Democrats, and they are open to making some concessions to the GOP in exchange for getting their way on it. But Republicans’ current negotiating demands — a border wall, and a change in the system for deciding who gets green cards, and a 50 percent cut in legal immigration, and a big increase in interior immigration enforcement — are ridiculous. The exact same people who are mad at Schumer for not delivering a DACA solution over the weekend would be furious at him if he agreed to all that, and rightly so.

Consequently, Trump has put himself in a position where he is about to waste the leverage he gained by canceling DACA by failing to strike a deal. Instead of winning policy concessions on immigration, he is about to win the booby prize of turning sympathetic DREAMers into the face of his immigration crackdown.

Blame the people who are responsible

None of this is to say that Senate Democrats’ handling of the situation has been tactically flawless. In my view, if they were going to try the shutdown gambit at all, it would have been smarter to try it sooner — in advance of the final vote on tax reform, when the mere act of delay would have pressured the GOP more. But for whatever reason, the intra-caucus politics don’t seem to have been there until Trump’s incendiary “shithole” remarks came to light.

But regardless, it’s important to pay attention to the big picture and not get excessively bogged down in the details.

The reason the DREAM Act failed in 2010 is that Republicans killed it. The reason comprehensive immigration reform failed in 2013 is that Republicans killed it. The reason DACA ended in 2017 is that Republicans killed it. And the reason that the bipartisan Durbin-Graham plan to help DREAMers hasn’t been enacted in 2018 is that Republicans are blocking it.

The most important thing Senate Democrats can do on immigration with only 49 votes is block the passage of new, bad immigration laws unless they receive offsetting policy concessions. And they are doing that. The Trump administration knows that if it wants to secure changes to US immigration law, it’s going to need to give Democrats help on DACA in exchange.

That they have thus far failed to come up with a proposal that would make a win-win compromise possible is a tragic failure but it is, again, their failure. Democrats should, of course, play their hand as best they can. But it simply isn’t a very good hand. The problem is the Republicans.

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