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Democrats are letting Republicans fundamentally reframe the immigration debate

When Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin first emerged from that now-infamous White House immigration meeting last week, his ...

Posted: Jan 16, 2018 12:55 PM
Updated: Jan 16, 2018 12:55 PM

When Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin first emerged from that now-infamous White House immigration meeting last week, his bipartisan bill cut down on sight by President Donald Trump, he conceded the obvious: Democrats were, at last, on the ropes.

Crafted by the Senate's "Gang of Six," the agreement had been touted as a kind of common-sense compromise. "We have been working for four months," its authors wrote in a statement, "and have reached an agreement in principle that addresses border security, the diversity visa lottery, chain migration/family reunification, and the Dream Act -- the areas outlined by the President."

"I don't know what happens next," Durbin said of the negotiations and, more broadly it seemed, the future of this mushrooming immigration debate. Democrats had gone to the middle, as the story went, and were met there with a middle finger.

But as the party's immigration priorities go, the reality is actually far worse.

Democrats are shut out of power on Capitol Hill and even with Trump's approval ratings anchored in the mid-to-high 30s, Republicans planning to flee Congress at an extraordinary rate and the prospect of a shutdown just days away, their leverage is mostly notional -- public opinion, which supports DACA overwhelmingly, is unlikely to faze the likes of Trump or immigration hardliners like adviser Stephen Miller or Sen. Tom Cotton.

They can work with what Republicans are offering on immigration and hope it allows hundreds of thousands of Dreamers to stay in the country, or shut down the government and hope Trump cracks. Both carry significant long- and short-term risks.

For those reasons, the agreement presented to Trump was no milquetoast, meet-you-half-way bargain. In fact, it would have begun to unwind the reforms of the Civil Rights era, which reset the parameters of legal immigration law as a way, at least in part, of redressing decades of racially biased guidelines and quotas.

There's no doubt this is a lousy spot for liberal lawmakers like Durbin, who are trying to save the estimated 700,000 Dreamers from deportation as Trump's deadline, which he said was meant to spur congressional action, nears. And yet, in presenting the "Gang of Six" deal as some kind of half-measure -- and not the generational overhaul it would truly represent -- Democrats are risking something more precious than any policy particular: allowing the very terms of the debate to shift right without acknowledging the magnitude of their concession.

Drawing it up on the back of an envelope, the solution to this impasse -- a compromise on recognizable terms -- once seemed simple enough. Democrats would get what they'd been after with the passage of the Dream Act (or something like it) and, in return, provide the votes for some kind of new border security funding, with a portion of that money going to prop up "the wall."

The deal would have undoubtedly disappointed immigration activists on the left. Many regard public dollar directed to a physical barrier, in any form, as a moral obscenity. Making matters worse, Trump would surely go out and tout the deal as evidence of his bargaining super-skills and call it a campaign promise delivered. Still, given the Republican grip on Washington, securing a deal to rescue Dreamers from their current limbo, or worse, would have been an estimable achievement -- and likely redound to the party's advantage over time.

Alas, this is not what's happening.

Not even close. Instead, Durbin and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, among others, agreed to address all of Trump's four pillars - the ones he spoke about during that occasionally strange and confusing open negotiating session at the White House two days earlier.

At a press conference earlier in the day, before the White House meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her own frustration at the shifting terms of the debate. Both sides, she insisted, had signaled a willingness to cut a deal that effectively exchanged DACA for new wall funding.

"Then this week it emerged that (Trump) wanted to change immigration policy with other, addressing family unification initiatives which they call by another name which I won't use and ending the diversity visa," she said, her frustration evident, before moving on to the administration's TPS threat: "So now we have to deal, and that's why some of this week people were finding out for the first time, that there were communities that were affected by this very directly and we have to address those concerns."

Indeed, both the White House and, in their draft pact, the Durbin-Graham group, were now pushing, in varying degrees, changes that would decimate the diversity lottery and limit or end family-based or "chain" migration -- two programs that have rarely figured in the modern legislative debate over illegal immigration, because they are questions about legal immigration.

Previous bipartisan efforts have addressed what opponents call "chain migration," but with the offsetting compromise of a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. No such comprehensive deal seems likely at the moment, despite Trump's eyebrow-raising suggestion to the contrary.

In exchange here, Democrats would preserve temporary protected status for migrants from countries like El Salvador and Haiti, who, like the Dreamers, Trump has faced with imminent deportation. It was at this juncture in their talk, as Durbin ran through the nationalities who would qualify, that Trump asked why people from "shithole countries" (or "shithouse countries" -- it doesn't matter) should be included and not, for example, Norwegians.

Later on, per a source familiar with the meeting, Trump returned to the point and, as if to quell any lingering doubt over his thought process, asked: "Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out."

Those lines should tell us all we should need to know about why Trump rejected the deal outright, while confirming, if it wasn't already painfully obvious, his views on race and what an "American" should look like.

But equally instructive here is the response by Republicans, who, even after seeing the potential for buy-in among moderates like Durbin, aren't rushing to rally congressional support for this would-be deal. Why would they? They quite clearly sense their advantage. What had for so long been viewed as a hard right, political implausibility, is now being characterized by Democrats as a compromise position.

That some Democrats are going along with this narrative, perhaps in their desire to protect DACA recipients on the brink or, less honorably, an effort to save face and deny Trump a victory lap, is remarkably short-sighted -- and sets the stage for more damaging defeats in the future.

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