Hard Lines on Immigration Drove U.S. to a Shutdown Nobody Wanted

(Bloomberg) -- Everybody said they didn’t want a government shutdown.

There even seemed to be an easy way out: Democrats get a compromise to deal with hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children in exchange for President Donald Trump’s demand for tighter border security with Mexico, including his oft-mentioned wall.

The compromise never materialized. The White House wouldn’t cede on legal status and Democrats dug in on refusing to fund the government without it. And suddenly, the collapse of this potential solution -- a border barrier for a plan known by the acronym DACA -- drove the nation to its first shutdown since 2013.

That this issue could shutter the government speaks to the powerful hold the immigration issue has on both parties’ most enthusiastic voters -- to Democrats’ vision of themselves as an party of inclusion and to Republicans’ vision of themselves as defending the very idea of what it means to be an American.

For Democrats, a restive voting base was exerting maximum election-year pressure on lawmakers to use the Jan. 19 shutdown deadline to fund the government as leverage to secure a long-sought policy victory: protecting some 690,000 young undocumented immigrants registered under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as "dreamers."

Republicans have challenged the legality of DACA and Trump has directed an end to it in March.

‘No Going Back’

“If Democrats don’t force Republicans to come to the table and keep their promise to protect the dreamers, 800,000 people could be deported,” said Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama who’s been using his media company to fire up a hard core of activist Democratic voters. Once they’re gone, “There’s no going back.”

Democratic elected officials are propelled by their growing reliance on Hispanic voters and their belief that they’ll be rewarded by if they take a hard line in favor of dreamers, who are mostly of Latino origin. Hispanics make up about 18 percent of the U.S. population and one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the country.

“The dreamers are members of our community who have been with for as long as they can remember and don’t even know another country,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat. “We don’t like people abusing our community members, which is exactly what the president has been doing.”

Voter Attitudes

American voters say 73 percent to 21 percent that people brought to the U.S. illegally as children should be allowed to stay and gain legal status, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday, before the shutdown. But there’s risk for Democrats: A CNN poll Friday showed that Americans don’t support a shutdown over the issue -- 56 percent said avoiding a shutdown is more important, while 34 percent said finding a solution for the DACA program should take priority.

Republicans are conflicted on immigration. Trump, who has promised to build a wall on the southern U.S. border and had directed tougher enforcement on immigration laws, has talked about his compassion for the dreamers. During a meeting with lawmakers Jan. 9 at the White House, he said legislation to protect them “should be a bill of love.”

Proposal Rejected

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the leading Republican proponents of immigration legislation, has been nudging Trump for months on the issue. He’s been a golf partner and offered the president public praise after being one of his leading critics during the campaign.

But when Graham offered up legislation to resolve the DACA dispute, co-sponsored with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, Trump rejected it. Graham was one of four Republican senators to vote against letting a Republican temporary funding plan advance to the Senate floor.

GOP leaders refuse to vote on that issue for fear of angering the anti-immigration part of their base unless Trump gets behind a proposal and provides them cover. But the president’s shifting stances have led to paralysis on immigration.

Linkage to Spending

To Republicans, the original sin of the shutdown was Democrats linking the funding bill to the plight of dreamers, two issues they consider unrelated.

“There’s only one reason we ended up here: the shoehorning of illegal immigration into this debate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday on the Senate floor. “Now having said that, there is a lot of sympathy in this body for doing something about the DACA kids.”

The Kentucky Republican conceded that Trump’s views on DACA “have not been made fully apparent yet” as he goes back and forth on what sort of deal he’s willing to accept. But McConnell insisted the government should remain open on a short-term basis while negotiations continue.

Democrats are skeptical Republicans will ever support the DACA resolution unless forced to, no matter Trump’s shifting positions.

“It needs to be attached to major spending bills so it makes it to the Oval Office,” Merkley said.

But that position has only inflamed GOP hardliners.

“By forcing this government shutdown, Senator Schumer and his colleagues are putting unlawful immigrants before America’s lawful citizens, children, and our troops,” said House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, referring to Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer. “No discussions on including DACA in this funding bill should be on the table while Senator Schumer and his allies hold the American people and our government hostage.”

Democrats are “fixated on amnesty,” said Senator John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican. “I just think this is a manufactured crisis.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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