Politics & Policy

Democrats’ Choice: Dreamers or the Resistance

Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Ron Wyden in Washington D.C. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
Trump’s tough terms for a renewal of DACA put Democrats on the spot.

Democrats and their mainstream-media cheering section are panning the Trump administration’s latest terms for granting legal status to the “Dreamers” — illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors and are covered under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi thought they had a deal with Trump that would lead to legislation extending Obama’s amnesty. But whatever was said at a White House dinner last month, Trump’s price for acquiescence to such a measure — a measure both parties want — will not be low. In order to get legal status for the 800,000 who benefit from DACA, Democrats are going to have to agree to more border security and other reforms that will make it harder for people to come to the United States without permission.

The initial response from the Democrats is “nothing doing.” They say they won’t let measures such as funding for Trump’s border wall and more immigration agents, denial of federal grants to so-called “sanctuary cities,” or tougher restrictions on the admission of refugees be part of any deal. Schumer made it clear that he considered these terms to be a way to scuttle DACA negotiations. Trump’s list of conditions was, he said, “anathema to the Dreamers” and “the immigrant community.”

Maybe that’s just a case of Schumer taking a page out of Trump’s book about being a skilled bargainer, and a compromise is still possible. But while the consensus in the liberal mainstream media is that Trump is showing his racist colors and really wants DACA to fail, what he has definitely done is to put the Democrats to the test.

Though Schumer and Pelosi may think widespread public support for relief for the Dreamers gives their party the whip hand in talks with Trump, the Democrats actually have little leverage over the president on this issue. If they want a legislative fix that keeps DACA alive, they are going to have to make substantial concessions to the White House and the Republican congressional leadership — both of which need to show the GOP base that they are serious about curbing illegal immigration.

But the Democrats aren’t eager to take just any deal they can get, either. Any compromise will open them up to accusations from their own base of appeasing the monster in the White House.

While the ongoing civil war within the Republican party has garnered more attention, the dissatisfaction of the Democrats’ base with their party establishment may be just as great. The threat of primary challengers to mainstream Democrats from the left is just as potent as that to Republicans from Steve Bannon’s populist faction. That effort is not just a continuation of the 2016 primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’s insurgency. At a moment in time when support for the “resistance” is the only thing generating any enthusiasm among Democrats, the notion that their party will support more haggling with Trump that will inevitably give him some reason to claim victory is a non-starter.

That means the choice for Democrats is not what parts of Trump’s immigration wish list to stand firm on but whether any negotiation, no matter how successful, is worth being accused of enabling the man that liberals view not so much as an opponent but as a secular Great Satan.

By offering the Democrats a deal on DACA, Trump has defined the issue of illegal immigration on terms that expose the Democrats’ problem. If their belief is that any efforts to curb illegal immigration — especially the surge of children from Central America arriving without parents — or to stop illegal immigrants from bringing in their entire families are unacceptable, then they have staked out a position that is not nearly as much in tune with public opinion as one focused on relief for the sympathetic Dreamers. It’s one thing to shame Trump over his statements about Charlottesville and his various comments about Mexicans and Muslims. But to treat border security as if it were evidence of racism, as the resistance seems to want to do, is quite another.

Just as important, the willingness of Democrats to accept a compromise tests whether help for the Dreamers is as important to them as fighting Trump is.

The notion that a working relationship between Trump and the Democrats could survive was probably always a pipe dream, even if the president really is a political chameleon. Conservatives were worried that he would appease the Democrats in order to get something he could claim as a legislative accomplishment, but instead, Trump is forcing them to acquiesce to at least part of his agenda. In a normal relationship between the White House and the political opposition, that would probably lead to a compromise that both sides could declare a victory. But as we’ve seen in the last nine months, there is nothing normal about the Trump administration or the hatred it has engendered on the left.

Under these circumstances, neither Trump nor the Democrats have much to lose from an impasse on DACA.

Under these circumstances, neither Trump nor the Democrats have much to lose from an impasse on DACA, even if most Americans would like them to do something to ensure that children who do not bear responsibility for coming here illegally will not be vulnerable to deportation.

But while the liberal media will blame failure on Trump’s terms, the notion that border-enforcement measures or efforts to prevent more illegal immigration are unreasonable will not sell as well outside of the Democratic base. If Schumer and Pelosi are so afraid of the resistance that they can’t accept any of Trump’s demands for the Dreamers’ sake — and perhaps they should be — then the failure will belong as much to them as to the president. Just as important, it will be a sign that the attempt to carve out the Dreamers as an issue on which a bipartisan consensus could be reached was also unrealistic.

If DACA is sacrificed on the altar of the resistance, few Democrats will blame anyone but the president, but once again they will have proved that their total war against Trump is more important to them than is any group that they claim to be representing. Though it will disappoint the Dreamers, it’s par for the course in a contemporary political culture in which Democrats seem incapable of treating compromise with Trump as anything other than evidence of racism.

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