Opinion

A Grain Of Saul: It’s Worth Shutting The Government Down Again For A DACA Deal

Disrupting the government is worth protecting Dreamers.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

We need to permanently protect the Dreamers, even if it means shutting the government down again.

When President Donald Trump rescinded DACA, he did it while promising that this would force Congress to act and make a policy born out of executive power into a real law, one drafted and voted on by members of Congress. But in the months that followed, Congress has neglected to act. 

In fact, members of Congress have missed the mark by an even wider berth. It appears some Republicans held the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) hostage to table DACA until after a spending bill was passed while Democrats miscalculated on a government shutdown and then promptly caved within 72 hours, discouraging their base and the immigrant activists who were hoping to see them hold out longer. Politico's Seung Min Kim described the entire situation as the Dreamers being "dragged through the mud."

Kim's reporting suggests that intertwining a government shutdown with DACA might not be good for Dreamers. Poll numbers suggest Americans support Dreamers, but are less willing to protect them when passing DACA legislation is weighed against a government shutdown. And yet, with March 5 deadline to help DACA recipients with expiring permits looming, it seems like a government shutdown is the only thing that can force the hand of legislators to find a fix.

In order to end this shutdown, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell struck a deal with Democrats to pass a short-term spending bill until Feb. 8 under the condition that they would bring a new immigration bill to a vote before then. But if no bill to protect DACA recipients from deportation is brought forward, Republicans and Democrats in favor of protecting DACA recipients should be prepared to shut the government down again.

As this weekend's shutdown loomed, the Democratic base was feverish with support for protecting the Dreamers. Protests took place in the Senate and women's marches across the country included shades of pro-immigrant activism. Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Jeff Flake seemed more motivated than ever to talk President Trump into a deal to protect Dreamers. Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, was ready to capitulate to Trump's worst instincts and offer more funding for a border wall. Even Republicans in Congress who didn't want to vote on a DACA bill were left worrying about how it'd look to have a government shutdown while controlling both chambers and the White House.

Now? The Democratic base sounds deflated, immigrant activists are already expressing disgust at the Senate Democrats for folding and as a nation we have no more clarity than we did before the shutdown began. Some Republican members of Congress and conservative media outlets are celebrating that Democrats "blinked." Democrats are watching as their own caucus fractures into divisions between the progressive left which wants a DACA deal now and the moderates who don't seem willing to go far enough to get one.

In the hours after Senate Democrats agreed to reopen the government with little more than a vague promise from Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a Senate vote on a DACA bill, a White House spokesperson told CNN the president wouldn't sign the Graham-Durbin deal, the most popular of all the DACA protection bills. When asked if the White House would begin deporting Dreamers on March 5, when expiring DACA permits will no longer be eligible for renewal, press secretary Sarah Sanders could only offer that she was "hopeful" they won't have to do that. 

Dreamers were given no reason to believe that this saga was coming to an end anytime soon. Instead, they got rebuffed on assurances they won't be deported and watched while Republican leaders celebrated the end of the shutdown as their doing.

"I think if we've learned anything during this process, it's that a strategy to shut down the government over the issue of illegal immigration is something that the American people didn't understand," Sen. McConnell said to Congress after Sen. Schumer announced his support to reopen the government. 

Don't count me as one of those Americans. 

For starters, this shutdown did accomplish one important step forward: by including a CHIP extension through 2023, the new spending bill divorced the health care of 9 million children from the fate of 700,000 immigrants, two issues that never should have been mutually exclusive in the first place (and weren't, until Congressional Republicans made them so). Republicans were able to celebrate it as a win for children while Democrats were able to say taking CHIP off the table would give them more leverage in a few weeks.

Aside from that, though, the reopening of the government and another short-term spending agreement amount to nothing more than the proverbial can being kicked a few more feet down the road. As Feb. 8 quickly approaches, Congress will be faced with a nearly identical pickle they faced in the last week: compromise on immigration or be forced into another government shutdown. 

If it comes to shutting down the government again, the Democrats and Republicans who want to see DACA codified into law shouldn't hesitate. 

While there are downsides — revenue lost at national parks, many government workers will have go unpaid or see delayed checks and CDC services like flu shots would be more limited — the Trump administration has pledged to do their best to mitigate the damage of any shutdown. And, as many Americans proclaimed last week on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, sometimes disruptive protests are required to advance a meaningful goal.

This goal is not a partisan objective, either.  A recent CNN query found that 84 percent of Americans would like to see DACA continue, and it's no wonder: without DACA protections hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought here as children, almost all of them working or in school, could be arrested and deported back to a country they do not know. 

If Congress is serious about protecting Dreamers, members should be ready to take serious steps to pass a bill that keeps DACA from expiring. 

And nothing feels more serious than grinding the government to a halt until that happens.

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Cover image via Diego G Diaz / Shutterstock.com