Immigration reform is the third rail of American politics. Whenever a lawmaker in some corner of Capitol Hill attempts to tweak the system and overhaul the country’s immigration policies, someone else puts a foot down and stops it from happening. The last immigration bill that was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president was the Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which increased the ranks of the Border Patrol and established the 287(g) program allowing local police officers to perform duties typically reserved for immigration agents.
Democrats know from personal experience how mind-numbingly impossible it has been to push through immigration reform over the last two decades. The script has been written over and over again: bills get introduced and marketed as a compromise between pro-business Republicans and pro-labor Democrats; immigration hardliners like Rep. Steve King along with conservative radio and television personalities rally the troops in a defensive position; and the effort either dies on the Senate floor or is prevented from going to the floor. Congress tried in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2010. And they tried again in 2013. Immigration rights groups are getting tired of waiting, and congressional Democrats are taking notice.
Comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely to pass in the current political climate, but extending legal protections afforded to young immigrant children brought to the U.S. by their parents (the Dreamers) is urgent enough that it’s possible something could be done. The big question for the Democratic Party is not whether relief to Dreamers should be offered. The question, rather, is whether immigration reform is so important to the party that Democrats are willing to shut the government down to get it.
Democrats are divided on the path forward. Some want to create a crisis, while others are hoping to deal with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) issue outside of a funding bill.
A group of Hispanic Democratic lawmakers in the House have already written a letter declaring that they will withhold votes on any spending deal that doesn’t include a legislative solution for the Dreamers tucked into it. Five prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidates—Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand—have staked out a similar position.
It’s not hard to see why this hardline position is being taken; standing up for Dreamers plays quite well politically with the Democratic grassroots and with the Democratic donors who throw tens of millions of dollars into the pot during every election cycle. Indeed, for a Democratic lawmaker to not be out strongly working for the Dreamers is like a Republican not campaigning to overturn the Affordable Care Act. There is no political upside to keeping your mouth shut.
Closing the federal government to compel congressional action on DACA, however, is no small matter. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi would rather not take the country to the brink of another fiscal crisis, particularly when one of the party’s main goals is to make Republicans look incompetent as the 2018 midterm election cycle begins. Moderate Democratic senators like Tim Kaine and Chris Coons believe shutting down Washington for any subject is foolish. And the polls would appear to bear that out; according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released last week, only 25 percent of Americans would support a government shutdown if it led to a positive resolution for the Dreamers. In other words, although a clear majority of Americans would rather have these young immigrants stay in the country, they aren’t willing to cause more chaos to do it.
If Congress doesn’t codify DACA by March, the program created by President Barack Obama will expire, and the 800,000 or so enrollees will lose their protective status. That, of course, means that hundreds of thousands of young adults and teenagers would now technically be illegal residents subject to deportation. That’s a scenario that nobody in Congress wants—not even the Chairman of the House Freedom Caucus.
But if there’s anything Congress is good at, it’s waiting until the very last minute of a deadline. Schumer and Pelosi will have to figure out whether preserving DACA is so essential to the Democratic Party’s agenda and national brand that they are open to shutting Washington’s lights off—the same tactic Democrats blamed Republicans for using four years prior.