President Donald Trump is presenting lawmakers with a Sophie's Choice on Dreamers (those who were brought to the United States illegally when they were
children): Acquiesce to his draconian immigration enforcement designs or watch him banish them.
There are two ways that decent members of both parties can avoid that dilemma: Either insist on attaching a clean Dreamer fix to a government-funding bill or pass one separately ahead of the funding bill. If they wait till after the funding bill is passed, they will lose all negotiating leverage to stop this administration's assault on immigrants.
Dreamers were one group of immigrants whom, during the campaign, Trump had assured he would leave unmolested. Even as he pledged to enact a Muslim travel ban, institute extreme vetting, and restore the notorious Operation Wetback program to eject other undocumented aliens, he promised to "take care" of Dreamers because he had a "big heart." But apparently his heart shrank once in office.
In September, he scrapped President Obama's DACA (Deferred Deportation for Childhood Arrivals) program that gave about 700,000 of about one million Dreamers a two-year reprieve from deportation and asked Congress to enact legislation legalizing them by March.
That wouldn't have been so bad if Trump had actually meant to spur Congress to hand permanent legal status to Dreamers, which only it can do. After all, a whopping 86 percent of Americans feel that Dreamers should not be punished for the "sins" of their parents and exiled to countries that they barely know after calling America home practically their entire lives. Many of them have American families and jobs here and have no ties to their native lands. Instead, Trump is using his suspension of DACA like a loaded gun to the heads of Dreamers to advance a sweeping anti-immigration agenda.
He has undermined several efforts by immigration doves within his own party such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to pass a standalone Dreamer Act that would give employed or college-going Dreamers with a clean record a path to eventual citizenship after they've met a whole slew of conditions. Indeed, all Senate Democrats and six Republicans already support the bill—which is enough for it to pass. But Trump wants none of that.
The New York Times recently reported that he has drafted a tall and horrid wish list of anti-immigration demands. And he is working with Senate immigration hardliners like Arkansas' Tom Cotton on legislation to advance it.
In exchange for legalizing Dreamers, it involves implementing aggressive border security measures like building the Great Wall of Trump, mandating E-verify, defunding "sanctuary" cities. Even more alarmingly, it would classify visa overstays as a criminal – as opposed to a civil – offense. This would close off practically all their options for regaining legal status, even if their visas expired not due to any fault of their own but the legendary incompetence of the immigration bureaucracy. It would also criminally prosecute those claiming asylum on allegedly "false" grounds, something that would run afoul of international law that will end up "illegalize" more immigrants than it'll legalize. And he would cut family-based legal immigration without any increases in high-skilled, employment-based immigration.
In other words, it's an all-out assault on all immigration.
Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan had originally hinted that they would attach a clean Dreamer fix to the must-pass government-spending bill as a way of getting around Trump's growing nastiness. However, after being summoned to the White House and getting a dressing down by the president, they've meekly fallen in line. They have both stated that Congress has until March to settle the DACA issue and therefore there is no need to put a DACA fix in the government-funding bill.
But this is a clear ploy to neutralize the leverage of DACA backers and put them in a weak negotiating position to help Trump push through his draconian agenda. This is so outrageous that 34 alarmed House Republicans wrote to Speaker Ryan recently urging him not to kick the can down the road given that, since Trump rescinded DACA, every month tens of thousands of Dreamers lose their DACA status. "We all agree that our border must be enforced, our national security defended, and our broken immigration system reformed, but at this moment, we must address the urgent matter before us in a balanced approach that does not harm valuable sectors of our economy nor the lives of these hard-working young people" they urged.
Indeed, given that the 198 Democrats and 34 Republicans favor a DACA fix, there is a clear majority in the House that would vote for a standalone bill except that House Speaker Ryan has no intention of allowing a vote and putting Trump in the uncomfortable position of having to veto it. A similar dynamic is unfolding in the Senate where at least six Republicans would be willing to vote with the 48 Democrats to legalize Dreamers but Sen. McConnell would never let the bill come up for a vote.
Given that there are solid majorities in the public and both chambers of Congress in favor of a DACA fix what should concerned lawmakers do to overcome such obstructionism and protect Dreamers?
Democrats—and likeminded Republicans—should either insist on passing a DACA bill before a government-funding bill is passed or attaching the fix with the bill. Earlier this month lawmakers passed a stopgap-funding bill till December 22 and as that deadline approaches they are getting ready to pass another one till the beginning of January. That delay is fine if it is in the service of buying more time to come up with a relatively clean DACA fix. Under no circumstances, however, should they fall for the Ryan-McConnell line that they have until March to do something. In fact, anything beyond January 20 would jeopardize Dreamers as the Department of Homeland Security will need time to process their applications ahead of the March deportation deadline.
So if the administration tries to drag things out, lawmakers should be prepared to shutdown the government. That is no doubt the nuclear option of last resort. And the Washington Post reports that 10 of 25 Democratic senators facing reelection next year are from mostly rural states that Trump won overwhelmingly, where talk of a shutdown over immigration reform is politically risky. But Democrats should also bear in mind what President Obama's unwillingness to spend any political capital on this issue till very late in his term did to Hispanic voter turnout in the last presidential election.
The country will recover from a government shutdown. But the moral damage from having to choose between these options will persist long after Trump and Trumpism have been relegated to the dustbin of history.
A version of this column
appeared in The Week.