President Trump is presenting lawmakers with a Sophie's Choice on the DREAMers: Acquiesce to his draconian immigration enforcement designs, or watch him banish these blameless individuals.
DREAMers — immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children — were one group of immigrants whom, during the campaign, Trump had assured he would leave undisturbed. Even as he pledged to enact a travel ban targeted at Muslims, institute "extreme vetting," and restore the notorious Operation Wetback program to eject other undocumented immigrants, he promised to "take care" of the DREAMers because he had a "big heart."
But apparently his heart shrank once in office, because in September, he scrapped former President Barack Obama's DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which gave about 700,000 of roughly one million DREAMers a two-year reprieve from deportation. Instead, Trump passed the buck, asking Congress to enact legislation legalizing DREAMers by March.
That wouldn't have been so bad if Trump had actually meant to spur Congress to hand permanent legal status to these individuals, which only legislation can do. Instead, Trump is using his suspension of DACA to advance a sweeping anti-immigration agenda.
The only way to avoid a moral stain on this country is for members of both parties to stand their ground and refuse to pass a government-funding bill that doesn't contain a clean DREAMer fix.
Trump has undermined several efforts by immigration doves within his own party, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), to pass a standalone DREAM Act that would give employed or college-going DREAMers with a clean record a path to eventual citizenship. All Senate Democrats and six Republicans already support the bill — which is enough for it to pass. But Trump wants none of that.
Instead, he is working with immigration hardliners like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on legislation that would, in exchange for legalizing DREAMers, implement aggressive border security measures like building the Great Wall of Trump, requiring employers to check the work authorization status of all hires, and defunding "sanctuary" cities.
Even more alarmingly, the bill would classify visa overstays as a criminal — as opposed to a civil — offense. This would close off practically all of the options available to DREAMers for regaining legal status, even if their visas expired not due to any fault of their own, but because of the legendary incompetence of the immigration bureaucracy. Trump's preferred legislation would also criminally prosecute those claiming asylum on allegedly "false" grounds, something that would run afoul of international law. As I've written previously, this will ultimately "illegalize" more immigrants than it'll legalize. And then there is the cut in legal immigration that Trump wants.
Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had originally hinted that they would attach a clean DREAMer fix to the must-pass spending bill as a way of getting around Trump. But after being summoned to the White House and getting a dressing-down by the president, they've meekly fallen in line; both have recently stated that because Congress has until March to settle the DACA issue, there is no need to put a DACA fix in the government-funding bill whose deadline for passage is Dec. 22.
This is a clear ploy to neutralize the leverage of DACA backers. In fact, 34 alarmed House Republicans wrote to Ryan recently urging him not to kick the can down the road because, since Trump rescinded DACA, every month tens of thousands of DREAMers lose their protected 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.
Given that all 193 Democrats plus those 34 Republicans favor a DACA fix, there is a clear majority in the House that would vote for a standalone bill — except Ryan has no intention of allowing such a vote, which would put Trump in the uncomfortable position of having to veto a DREAMer-friendly law. A similar dynamic is unfolding in the Senate, where at least six Republicans would be willing to vote with the 48 Democrats to grant DREAMers legal status, but McConnell would never let the bill come up for a vote.
So what can lawmakers do to overcome this obstructionism?
For starters, let no stone go unturned in negotiations with Trump. That means swallowing hard in the face of this president's constant provocations and showing up for planned meetings to convince him to abandon his poison pills. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Democrats' top lawmakers, canceled a recent summit with Trump on the issue after the president tweeted in advance that he didn't think that any agreement was possible. They need to keep their cool and do what's in the best interest of the DREAMers, not give in to their pique.
If that doesn't work, Democrats — and like-minded Republicans — should work together to deny Trump the 60 votes he needs to overcome a filibuster to pass a spending bill and avoid a government shutdown. If enough senators put their foot down, they could force Trump to back off. This is especially the case after Roy Moore's defeat in Alabama, because Republicans will be less inclined to kick the DREAMer can past the end of this year with another stop-gap spending resolution, when they'll have one less seat in the Senate.
That's a tall order, but far from impossible. Four Democratic senators, including California's Kamala Harris, Massachusetts' Elizabeth Warren, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, and New Jersey's Cory Booker have already declared that they won't vote for a spending bill that doesn't protect DREAMers. And they might be able to bring on board at least Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican and one of the few consistent voices for immigration-friendly policies on either side of the aisle — especially because McConnell promised Flake a DACA fix in exchange for his support for the just-passed tax cut bill.
A government shutdown is no doubt the nuclear option of last resort. But consider the choice that Trump will otherwise force America to confront: Protect DREAMers but set the stage for the persecution of more immigrants in the future, or protect future immigrants but persecute DREAMers now.
The country will recover from a government shutdown. But the moral damage from having to choose between these odious options will persist long after Trump has been relegated to the dustbin of history.