On Dec. 21, members of Congress shifted to vacation mode and headed home for the holiday season. Their last looming agenda item on the way out the door was the Continuing Resolution, a stopgap measure to fund the government and prevent a partial shutdown. The decision to keep the government open seems relatively noncontroversial, but given current levels of polarization and its obstacles to productive lawmaking, government funding often becomes the mechanism by which both parties seek to force through their legislative priorities.
In December, 28 Senate Democrats and over 170 House Democrats voted against the funding bill because it failed to resolve the status of Dreamers — young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children and were protected under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. When President Trump terminated DACA last September, he left over 800,000 Dreamers uncertain about their futures. Roughly 1,000 Dreamers become vulnerable to deportation each week; all of their remaining protections will officially expire on March 5 unless Congress comes to an agreement. A permanent legislative resolution of their status, known as the DREAM Act, has bipartisan support, but Congress has done little to move it forward. The Democrats who voted against the Continuing Resolution in December have pledged that they will not support a funding bill unless it includes a clean DREAM Act, which safeguards Dreamers’ status without treating them as a bargaining chip for the border wall or other untenable immigration enforcement measures.
The rest of the Democrats have one more week to decide if they will join their principled colleagues. Next Friday, Congress must reach a long-term funding agreement, or else a government shutdown will take place. This agreement needs 60 votes to pass in the Senate, meaning that the Republicans cannot keep the government open without Democratic support. If a critical mass of Democrats vows to stand by Dreamers, then running the government will be conditional on Congress taking action, which would hopefully enshrine Dreamers’ protections and create a path to citizenship. Yet, if the Democrats do not believe the DREAM Act is worth the political capital that a shutdown would cost, they will signal that they have no genuine commitment to some of the most vulnerable people in Trump’s America. Any such Democratic lawmakers, as well as the party leadership, will have proven themselves hypocritical and disgraceful.
I believe that every Democrat in the House and Senate should stand by the Dreamers, even if it comes at the cost of a shutdown. Sticking by the Dreamers is an opportunity for the party to assert its identity and to kick off 2018 with political courage — an important step to winning back both houses of Congress in November. In the wake of the 2016 election, the Democrats’ future remains uncertain. Some Democrats are committed to courting the white working class, cultivating a more moderate image and suppressing so-called “identity politics.” Others are fully embracing the progressivism that forms the backbone of grassroots activism. If the past few months are any indication, the party’s best hopes lie with the latter, bolder approach. After all, Doug Jones won a Senate seat in Alabama as a progressive Democrat — pro-choice, committed to civil rights and a proponent of affordable healthcare.
The activists who tirelessly fought against the repeal of Obamacare and protested the Muslim ban at airports are those who will mobilize the electorate this fall — assuming that the Democrats remain committed to their priorities. Progressive leaders deserve a political party that is willing to take a stand and fully support the people whom Trump has unjustly targeted. As the minority party in both houses of Congress, the Democrats generally lack the power to block Republican nominations and legislation, but in the efforts to pass a long-term funding bill this week, Democrats have all the leverage. If the Democrats do not harness that leverage to protect Dreamers at all costs, they will signal that they have little to offer — just empty promises and vacuous condemnation of Trump’s immigration agenda. Through such inaction, the Democrats would betray their progressive base, put their own political future in jeopardy and disprove their claims that they prioritize justice for the vulnerable.
The deadline for the long-term funding bill falls on the anniversary weekend of the Women’s March, in which millions of people mobilized to express a positive, inclusive vision for America — the antithesis of Trump’s campaign rhetoric and promises. Immigrants’ rights were the focal point of many chants and signs at the marches; “Immigrants are Welcome Here” and “Immigrants Make America Great” were two prominent phrases. The Democratic Party should strive to authentically represent these millions of people — cutting across a wide range of ages, racial backgrounds and home states — who do not see their values reflected in President Trump’s America. The risk-averse decision to set aside the Dreamers would be an affront to the legacy of the Women’s March and the dedication of those who partook in it. As the Democrats work to take back the House and Senate in November, they cannot afford to snub progressive activists and immigrants’ rights advocates.
If the Democrats were to trigger a shutdown, they would face harsh criticism. A government shutdown comes with substantial economic and human costs — but nothing that rivals the risk of deportation for 800,000 hard-working young people who have grown up, built careers and started families in the United States. Amid condemnation and questioning, the Democrats ought to remind the American people that Donald Trump revoked DACA without legitimate cause, senselessly thrusting the Dreamers into uncertainty. Forcing a shutdown over DACA is a response to a manmade crisis, inflicted at the whims of Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and a way to compensate for the Republican-led Congress’s inaction.
DACA was designed to protect people who exemplify American values but happen to lack an American birth certificate. In this moment, Democrats have the chance to show that they prioritize, above all else, the widespread accessibility of American opportunity and success — not to mention the security of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who entrusted the U.S. government with their personal information in exchange for protected status. The temporary chaos of a government shutdown is a small price to pay for 800,000 individuals’ futures and the survival of the American Dream.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.