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Senate Democrats and Immigration


When the Democrats took the deal on CHIP to end the shutdown almost immediately, I said it was a good deal and might be smart politics. Theoretically, I still agree with that. It could have been smart politics to take the short-term deal and ratchet up attention on immigration to prepare for the end of the upcoming government funding into a second shutdown where the Republicans couldn’t hold them hostage over children’s health insurance.

But I was wrong in understanding the Democratic strategy. Senate Democrats have basically caved entirely. There is zero stomach for second shutdown. No matter what, that is not happening. Immigration advocates are furious and they have every right to be. Chuck Schumer’s comment that he can’t let this be the singular issue because he has to keep the focus on the middle class was insensitive at best and bad politics for sure.

But I’m not entirely sure what choice he has. Although I haven’t seen anyone make this connection that concretely, it seems pretty clear that among other things, the problem is Joe Manchin. He threatened to retire over the government shutdown and was evidently serious until he was talked out of it. I’ve defended Manchin to some extent on a number of occasions. To my knowledge, he has never personally killed a good bill or provided the single key vote on a bad bill. He stayed with the Democrats on the ACA and on the tax bill. But it seems likely that if nothing else, the fear of losing Manchin and creating a narrative that there is no room for moderates in the Democratic Party is enough to scare off Senate Democrats. I also think Joe Manchin does not care about immigrants.

I can’t 100% blame Democrats for this. Ultimately, the long-term way to protect immigrants is to win back power. Thanks to Roy Moore and Donald Trump, Democrats now have a plausible shot at retaking the Senate in 2018. It’s still not likely, but it’s possible. Without Manchin, Democrats 100% lose that seat to some winger and they have zero chance of retaking the Senate.

I’m not saying I can defend this. In fact, I don’t know what to do. From a moral perspective, shutting down the government to defend immigrants is absolutely the correct thing to do. It would probably help raise Latino votes for Democrats in critical states. On the other hand, while we can’t know who would take the blame for a long-term shutdown over immigration, it’s at least plausible that it would be Democrats and certainly in the media it would be. Moreover, putting Manchin in context here is important. Let’s look at the number of foreign-born people by state. That’s the image at the top of the post. West Virginia has the lowest percentage of foreign-born citizens in the United States. To an extent, this is a reflection of the same problem that unions have faced in this nation–concentrated in only a few states, they were never able to gain the large-scale political power they needed to force politicians to do the right thing. With immigrants, it’s largely the same. In states such as California, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois, immigrants now play a vital role as political figures. In states such as Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, a good share of vote from a Latino community can lead to Democrats winning office and a poor share to Republicans. Any chance Texas ever turns blue relies almost entirely on immigrants. The only two states with significantly lower than average immigrant populations that voted for Hillary Clinton are Vermont and Maine.

In the end, if Democrats want to tell Joe Manchin to go to hell and shut the government down over immigration rights, I am fine with it. It might seriously hurt Heitkamp and Donnelly too though. But this is the morally correct position. I also understand why they would not want to do this. Personally, I would not take the immigration deal or anything like it. I don’t think this is in Democrats’ interest. It might protect the Dreamers but it would go very far to repealing the 1965 Immigration Act and that’s unacceptable. I guess the argument is to take the deal, then repeal it as soon as they have power again, hopefully in 2021. But would they really do that? Would Manchin and Heitkamp and Donnelly, assuming they all win in 2018, go along with it? Would it pass a filibuster? We can be very skeptical. Yes, this would mean the deportation of the Dreamers, which the Trump administration and the fascists in ICE can’t wait to do. This is a lesser evil question. The portrayal of Dreamers as the Good Immigrants makes this choice politically more complicated.

Unfortunately, when dealing with an evil racist political party that controls all levers of government, Democrats face very difficult and perhaps no-win decisions. I wish they stood together to defend immigrants. But they don’t and that’s in part because a lot of these senators simply don’t have a political consistency made up of immigrants. I don’t know what to do.

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