All politics is about backroom negotiations and horse-trading: There’s always a carrot or a stick to force through legislation and keep the country chugging along. On Monday, immigration activists watched in dismay as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appeared to surrender his caucus’ biggest stick in the fight over the fate of roughly 700,000 members of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, in exchange for practically nothing.
Advocates had successfully pushed Schumer — through unrelenting pressure that included repeatedly occupying his D.C. offices — into whacking his Republican counterparts with a government shutdown over their refusal to allow permanent protections for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. President Donald Trump’s administration ended the DACA program in September of last year, ostensibly so Congress could come up with a legislative solution, yet Trump himself has spent much of the intervening time muddying the waters about what exactly he wants in exchange and what he’d be willing to sign if it landed on his desk.
Against this backdrop, the shutdown was a key point of leverage. With a caucus of 49 senators (including two ideologically aligned Independents) and a filibuster-proof supermajority of 60 needed to advance a budget, the Democrats could have theoretically ground the government to a halt until a DACA deal was reached. Instead, Schumer announced on Twitter Monday afternoon that the government would be reopened with the understanding that either an overall agreement would be reached by February 8 or DACA legislation would be advanced without one. He wrote that he expected Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “to fulfill his commitment to the Senate [and] abide by this agreement” or risk breaching “the trust of not only the Democratic Senators but the members of his own party as well.” The Senate voted in the afternoon to pass a spending bill to keep the government in operation until the 8th.
For DACA recipients — who currently cannot file to renew their status if it expires, leading more to lose protections every day — and activists anxiously eyeing the program’s March 5 end date, relying on Mitch McConnell’s word is a flimsy negotiating position.
“For them to back down on the government shutdown now, it’s very upsetting because they continue to play with our lives,” said Ricardo Aca, a Dreamer and member of Make the Road New York, as he stood at a podium outside the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in lower Manhattan on Monday. “Now I’m back in limbo, my DACA expires in ten months, and even though right now a judge blocked the decision to end DACA, we don’t know how long that’s going to last.”
Aca’s disillusionment is not unreasonable. In the past couple of weeks alone, multiple attempts to reach a deal have failed as the president agreed to and subsequently backed out of proposals hashed out by legislators of both parties that included, among other things, beefed-up border security and modifications to family-based immigration. Schumer even declared himself open to funding Trump’s promised decorative southern border wall, a measure that the entire Democratic Senate caucus and a healthy chunk of Republicans hate. Simultaneously, the Justice Department has been trying to bypass the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and go straight to the Supreme Court in its bid to keep dismantling DACA after the process was halted by a federal judge.
Even if the Senate reaches agreement on renewing DACA, McConnell himself has indicated that he’ll likely decline to move forward without Trump’s explicit approval. “I’m looking for something that President Trump supports, and he’s not yet indicated what measure he is willing to sign,” McConnell said this week.
Not many observers will be holding their breaths for the fickle commander-in-chief to definitively make up his mind within the next few weeks, meaning that Schumer has relinquished his most significant pressure point — one that was likely doing much more political harm to the Republicans, who control the House, Senate, and Oval Office — without any real guarantees.
“Schumer not passing a clean Dream Act now, not pushing for a clean Dream Act in the budget, is letting our leverage go,” said Renata Pumarol, deputy director of New York Communities for Change, at the rally at the Javits building. “Democrats need to hold the line. We do not trust that they’re going to do it later on.”
If February 8 comes with no DACA resolution, it’s unlikely that the Senate will simply push through one of the existing legislative fixes. At that point, the Democrats’ only recourse might be to decline to pass a comprehensive spending bill and send the government into another shutdown, with a month to go before hundreds of thousands of immigrants lose their work authorization and are exposed to deportation. Even as DACA remains broadly popular among the electorate at large, the longer the clock keeps ticking, the less likely it becomes that the Democrats will be able to move permanent protections through a polarized Congress in time to avert disaster.