Democrats Play the Long Game on Immigration

A budget deal with no Dreamer fix makes clear the party doesn’t think it can win on immigration right now.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters while announcing the House Democrats’ new infrastructure plan during a news conference on Thursday in Washington.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi talks to reporters while announcing the House Democrats’ new infrastructure plan during a news conference on Thursday in Washington.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After a second government shutdown in the last three weeks—albeit one that lasted all of six or so hours—Congress passed a sweeping budget bill early Friday morning. The deal does many things, several of which involve the word billion. But when it comes to immigration there are only two things of note: It does nothing at all to protect the Dreamers, and it simultaneously removes the last shred of leverage Democrats had in the immigration debate this year.

And make no mistake, Democrats were willing participants in this. The budget bill could not have become law without their help. In the Senate, Chuck Schumer teamed up with his opposing number, Mitch McConnell, to unveil the package in the upper chamber, where a total of 37 of 49 Democrats ended up voting for it (once they finally had the chance). And over in the House, Nancy Pelosi was willing to hold the floor for eight hours to rail against the deal, but she wasn’t willing to go all out and whip her caucus to vote no with her. In the end, 73 House Democrats voted for the bill, more than the 67 spending-averse Republicans who voted against it. The bipartisan label gets thrown around a lot in Washington—often as soon as there is a single member of the opposing party on board—but this was a bipartisan deal by pretty much any measure.

Now before I tackle the twin political questions of What were the Democrats thinking? and What does this mean for the midterms?, it is necessary to pause and acknowledge the real-world consequences here. The decision by lawmakers to leave the fate of the Dreamers unknown indefinitely is one that adversely impacts millions of people in direct and indirect ways.

While the ongoing court fight over Donald Trump’s plan to stop issuing DACA permits on early next month adds an extra layer of uncertainty to all this, hundreds of thousands of people who have known no other home than the United States still face the very real threat of deportation in the very near future. According to the Migration Policy Institute, if and when those permits stop being issued, each day more than 900 Dreamers will lose protection from deportation.

That threat is already having serious impacts on lives, and that threat only became more urgent—significantly so—when Congress sent this bill to the president’s desk Friday morning. And lest you think for a moment that Trump isn’t actually all that eager to deport Dreamers, I urge you to consider how his Immigration and Customs Enforcement has acted since he took office. ICE’s immigration-related arrests are up by more than 40 percent, by the agency’s own count; deportation horror stories are up by considerably more, by mine.

So, that is the human price Democrats willingly paid Thursday night. The question, then, is why?

There are a couple of answers to that, depending on both how generous you care to be toward Democrats and how far you are willing to look into the future. The simplest answer, though, is that Democrats decided that a shutdown over immigration was a fight they could not win, and so they chose to live to have that fight another day, one when they believe the numbers on Capitol Hill will be on their side. (Meanwhile, making their retreat a little easier was that, immigration aside; Democrats actually got a lot of what they wanted in this deal.)

The Democrats’ moral calculus for agreeing to an immigration-free deal is that Dreamers will be far better off if Democrats take the House and Senate this fall, and a shutdown would have made that less likely. The first part of that is self-evident (though it’s hardly guaranteed that President Trump would sign a DACA-style bill if Democrats can put one on his desk next year). And while you don’t need to take the second part as gospel, I think it’s clear based on how quickly Democrats folded during the last shutdown that they at least believed a shutdown was a bad political bet for them.

This being Washington, though, there is also a more cynical reading. And that’s that punting this issue actually helps Democrats politically in the short term. Leaving the Dreamer question unanswered for now simplifies their pitch to voters in November, particularly to those Trump voters with buyer’s remorse. Instead of spending the next nine months defending a decision to shut down the government over a single issue, Democrats can instead deliver a clearer refrain of A vote for us is a vote against Trump. Clearly, there is a big audience for that message—which is good, since Democrats are dreaming big, maybe too big, about the midterms. Meanwhile, immigration advocates will still be furious at Democrats over Friday’s deal come November, but the need to protect the Dreamers will only become more urgent, not less, if the courts rule in Trump’s favor on DACA between now and then. They don’t exactly have another place to turn, after all.

Whether you think Democrats are being pragmatic or cowardly may very well depend on how many people you know who are in danger of deportation. But regardless, it’s clear the Democrats made this decision with an eye toward tomorrow. The problem with playing that long game, though, is that you can forget about the short one. The arc of the moral universe may indeed bend toward justice, but that doesn’t help you if ICE is knocking on your door.