Lost in the coverage of the Republican victory over tax-code reform this week has been the Republican victory on immigration. Though it is a minor and temporary win, congressional Democrats’ decision to retreat from their threat to shut down the government unless the deferred deportation program for the children of illegal immigrants was made permanent demonstrates why Republicans continue to hold a strong hand on the issue of immigration.

On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would expire in approximately six months. Sessions clearly more zeal for the effort to strip protections from the 800,000 plus beneficiaries who took advantage of Barack Obama’s 2012 executive order. Many Republican lawmakers squirmed in their seats over the prospect of consigning hundreds of thousands of productive and assimilated adults to the shadows, or worse. Even Trump eventually pulled the rug out from under Sessions.

“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated, and accomplished young people who have jobs, serving in the military?” the president wrote in mid-September. Trump had just struck what he described as a deal with “Chuck and Nancy,” i.e. the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House respectively, which raised the debt ceiling for several weeks (as opposed to the 18 months Republicans preferred) in exchange for precisely nothing. At least, that’s how the bargain appeared to observers at the time.

According to a joint statement from the two Democratic leaders released a week later, they had also negotiated a compromise with the Republican president on the issue of DACA. “We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly and to work out a package of border security excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides,” the statement read. Independent reporting confirmed that “Trump had veered toward Democrats on DACA.”

This was a far cry from the candidate who had campaigned for the GOP nomination on the prospect of repealing birthright citizenship protections in 14th Amendment protections and whose only humanitarian consideration in advocating the deportation of DACA recipients was making arrangements to have their families join them. It seemed like Democrats had all the leverage they needed to make a stand on this issue when it came to a head again after Trump’s short-term debt-ceiling hike expired.

Indeed, as the prospect of a government shutdown just days before Christmas loomed larger, Democrats began digging in for a fight. DACA recipients working in Congress were profiled in the Washington Post. Democratic representatives signaled, publicly and privately, that they would not support a government-funding extension that did not include a permanent DACA fix. “We have to do it before Christmas,” Pelosi said in October. “That’s just the way it is.” The stage appeared to be set for another shutdown showdown. And then, without ceremony, Democrats abandoned the bluff.

“I’m not drawing a line in the sand,” Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill told the Post. Her fellow red-state Democrats–West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly–confirmed that they were with McCaskill. Democrats who represent states replete with government workers, such as Virginia’s Tim Kaine, joined the mutineers. In the end, 10 Democratic senators could not support shutting down the government over DACA even if that meant exacerbating tensions within the Democratic caucus (tensions that Illinois Senator Dick Durbin all but confirmed do exist).

So why did Democrats back down? It’s most certainly not because they fear they would be faulted for a government shutdown by the public and the press. Democrats seem preternaturally able to avoid blame when the government ceases nonessential activity. It’s not because Republican lawmakers are committed to passing a permanent resolution to DACA early next year, or there would have been no shutdown threat in the first place. It’s definitely not because the party’s base has become forgiving of vulnerable Democrats who adopt a centrist position on immigration. The answer is simple: The immigration calculation in red states continues to favor Republicans and Donald Trump.

Republican voters are not hostile toward the so-called DREAMERs who were the beneficiaries of Obama’s executive order. A September survey found that Republicans backed legal protections for the children of illegal immigrants by a 2-to-1 margin. Sixty-five percent of Republicans said they favor work permits and a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. And yet, the course advocated by Democrats would have left the opposition party open to a compelling one-line attack: Democrats shut down the government for illegal immigrants.

This failed gambit was not without risk. Following the Democratic Party’s capitulation, crestfallen DREAMER activists expressed to reporters their profound sense of disappointment in the party’s congressional leadership. Liberal Democrats such as California Senator Kamala Harris heaped scorn on their colleagues, albeit obliquely, for failing to take the “morally right” course of action. “Don’t underestimate the disappointment and the anger of people who feel they’ve been hoodwinked or led astray,” outgoing Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez said of the Democratic base.

If there is a legislative solution to the DREAMERs issue early next year, as now seems likely, the passion for their cause will obviously fade. But this episode is, however, a reminder that Republicans do not have a monopoly on voters who vehemently reject prudent political considerations, such as timing and choosing defensible terrain on which to mount a fight. Liberal activists are spoiling for a fight with the Trump-led GOP, even one that’s disadvantageous. If they’re not lucky, they just might get what they’re asking for.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link