Democrats' Jujitsu Moves on Immigration Reform

By Dave Ray
March 23, 2018

Washington is waiting to see when action on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals again will be slipped into some must-pass piece of legislation, where it ultimately has little chance of prevailing on its own.  This, despite the fact that Democrats’ amnesty “jujitsu” moves have many Americans, including DACA recipients, scratching their heads.  The most recent bout of “chase your tail” that we’ve all watched since the election of President Trump is just a snapshot of years of amnesty promises made and broken by Democratic leaders, starting with the Obama campaign in 2008. 

Remember, Obama promised to deliver amnesty in his first year in office, and despite having a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate (and a comfortable majority in the House), he never found the time to push a measure that seems to enjoy universal support from rank-and-file party members.  The idea that President Obama didn’t have the time to pass a blanket amnesty for the nation’s 12 million illegal aliens in his first 24 months of office is absurd.  Democrats should have been able to pass that bill in 10 minutes.  

Yet they passed nothing while promising everything. 

More recently, Sen. Chuck Schumer demanded that Trump agree to an amnesty for at least 700,000 DACA recipients.  That was no small request, given that Trump campaigned to end DACA on day one.  But the president responded by one-upping the Senate minority leader, offering amnesty for 1.8 million, covering the entire population of illegal aliens who could have ever qualified for DACA – even those who never bothered to apply. (Only in America, folks.)  All Trump wanted in return for that generous offer was a partial list of border security and legal immigration reforms that he was elected on. 

Still nothing. 

So what gives?  There are three popular theories that offer plausible explanations as to why an amnesty, which has been promised for more than a decade by the Democratic leadership, has yet to happen: 

Theory No. 1:  Trump Can’t Be Allowed to “Own” This.  Current leaders of the Democratic Party desperately want this amnesty, but they definitely don’t want Trump to get a scintilla of credit for it.  In order for Democrats to remain politically relevant, they must hold onto a large portion of the Hispanic vote.  A recent Harvard-Harris poll shows Hispanics are politically supportive of many of the measures being pushed by the president: ending chain migration, strong border enforcement, and ending the visa lottery.  If Trump can deliver an amnesty on top of that – a measure that will overwhelmingly benefit Latinos – he could make great strides in forging a new Hispanic loyalty to the Republican Party.  (How do you like the sound of “Trump’s Dreamers”?) 

Consider the letter from Roger Rocha Jr., the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, praising Trump for his offer and supporting the contents of his proposal.  Of course Rocha’s hand was slapped by authoritarians within the Democratic Party, but it nevertheless revealed that leaders within the Hispanic community are willing to consider border enforcement as a fair trade for DACA. 

Theory No. 2:  Democrats Need “DACA Energy” for the 2018 Midterms. Democratic aspirations of winning back the House and/or Senate will rely on driving motivated voters to the polls in November.  If DACA is solved and key candidates no longer have a finger to point at their GOP rivals, how will they motivate their base to get out and vote?  Remember, Hispanics are benefiting from the same booming economy as the rest of us, so if they can’t be angry with Republicans about immigration, can Democrats count on them to show up and pull a lever for their candidates? 

Theory No. 3:  The Fault Lines of Amnesty.   Obama never sought a vote on amnesty, even during the four months that Democrats had the magic filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate and a huge majority in the House, because it would expose fault lines in the party that everyone would rather pretend don’t exist.  There are still Rust Belt Democrats who need blue-collar union votes to keep their seats, and some sectors of the American labor movement that don’t take kindly to amnesty.  Instead of exposing those fault lines, Democrats can keep pushing the amnesty issue to paint Republicans as mean and unreasonable. 

Think of it this way:  If Obama had been able to legalize the nation’s illegal immigrants, they would be beholden to him and the Democratic Party. So why didn’t he -- a keen political strategist -- extend the vote to these would-be loyal Democrats-the-making?   He couldn’t, because it would have annihilated the mirage of Democratic Party unity on the immigration issue. 

And who are the losers of this political gamesmanship?  The American public, who still can’t get border and interior enforcement after decades of promises.  And the DACA recipients, who can’t get a straight answer as to whether they can plan on a life in the U.S. or need to start packing their bags. 

Dave Ray is director of communications at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

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