As I write this column, the federal government is shut down, which may or may not still be the case by the time you read it. If we set aside the trivial question of which party will get political advantage from this ugly confrontation, there are actually some important issues that will remain even after the dispute is resolved and government services are restored. This budget fight has exacerbated the divisions between the two parties on immigration, one of the most profound and emotionally fraught issues we have to deal with. And if the agreement that ends the crisis doesn’t resolve some of the core questions, those divisions may only get worse.
That’s true even though there’s an obvious resolution to the crisis. Democrats would grit their teeth and swallow a large amount of funding for Donald Trump’s asinine border wall, and in exchange the Dreamers given temporary legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) would be allowed to stay in the US. It’s a much better deal for Republicans, since they say they want to allow the Dreamers to stay, which means they wouldn’t actually be giving up anything. Unless, of course, they’re not being honest about that.
If you’re beginning to suspect that’s the case, you aren’t alone. Over the weekend, there was a decided shift in Republican rhetoric, as they stopped talking about “Dreamers” and started talking about “illegal immigrants” in increasingly harsh terms. As Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen put it on Twitter, “Benefits for millions of illegal immigrants instead of paying Americans who put their lives at risk daily to protect ours? I don’t think so.” The Trump for president reelection campaign (yes, there is such a thing) released an ad saying “Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.” White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said, “We will not negotiate the status of unlawful immigrants while Democrats hold our lawful citizens hostage over their reckless demands.”
President Trump may have said two weeks ago that he wanted “a bipartisan bill of love” to protect the Dreamers, but the GOP position is now that Congress should put that off until after the shutdown is resolved. Democrats, on the other hand, believe that if they don’t get an agreement on DACA now when they have leverage, they won’t ever get it. And given what we’re hearing from the GOP, they’re probably right.
That’s because even though more than eight out of ten Americans in nearly every poll say they believe Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the US, Republican members of Congress are terrified that their base will punish them if they look like they’re being too sympathetic to immigrants—and everything Republican leaders are saying now is stirring up that base and amping up that fear.
It may be hard to remember now, but not too long ago Republicans wanted to get comprehensive immigration reform. But then two things happened. First, in 2013, a comprehensive bill passed the Senate but died in the House, and the Republicans who supported it found themselves vilified in conservative media. Then in 2016, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president by offering up a campaign of naked, unapologetic white nationalism, which convinced most Republicans that their political survival depends on taking harsh anti-immigrant stands.
Today, the parties have moved further apart than ever on the issue of immigration, not because Republican voters have changed their views so much but because Democrats have become much more supportive of immigration. Look at these extraordinary graphs from the Pew Research Center:
While Republican views haven’t changed much, the proportion of Democrats saying immigrants strengthen our country through their hard work and talents has nearly doubled just since 2010. At this point there’s more disagreement within the GOP, but the party’s policy is being driven by an angry base and president who thinks we shouldn’t allow in immigrants from “shithole” countries that just happen to be largely non-white.
Which is why if Democrats don’t get their way on DACA now, they may not get it as long as Trump is president and Republicans control Congress. And a lot of young people who grew up in the United States are going to be sent back to countries they barely know.
Despite the fact that there are many Republican voters whose beliefs on immigration line up more closely with the Democratic Party’s positions, it isn’t surprising that we’re having a passionate argument about this issue, because it gets to as fundamental a difference between conservatives and liberals as you’ll find. It’s about not just who gets to be an American, but what America is.
Let me illustrate it this way. The Winter Olympics begin next month, and if you want to see American exceptionalism on display, there are few better demonstrations than the parade of nations in the Olympic opening ceremonies. When you watch it you’ll see one country after another pass by with a group of athletes who all look pretty much alike, until near the end the large American delegation walks in. During the 2008 summer games, I wrote about what that picture says about our country:
The American athletes came in all colors, descended from European, South American, Asian, and African stock. Among them were the grandchildren of immigrants, the children of immigrants, and immigrants themselves. In the parade of nations, they were led by flag-bearer Lopez Lamong, a Sudanese refugee stolen from his parents at the age of six by militiamen who wanted to turn him into a soldier. Lamong escaped, walked over the Kenyan border, and eventually found his way to the United States, where he became a champion distance runner.
Lamong’s story is heartbreaking and inspiring, but what is so remarkable is that in America, so many of us have similar tales in our family history. Every family everywhere has its tragedies and sufferings, but nearly every American family has a story of hardship that ends with arrival in this country.
Other people may find their patriotic emotions at their peak when they hear the national anthem or look out over a vista in one of our national parks. But there’s nothing that makes me prouder of my country than watching the American athletes enter the Olympic stadium (even though the diversity of the team is rather less vivid in the winter games than in the summer ones). That’s what gives me a catch in my throat, to know that while the world watches, we can say to everyone that this is who we are—every color, every religion, every family history, every story, we all have a place in America.
That’s the aspiration, anyway, and the reason why everywhere in the world, when an ambitious striver says to themselves, “I’ve gotta get out of this shithole,” America is the place they dream of coming. That dream will probably survive Donald Trump. Or at least we can hope.