Hey Congress! People Aren’t Pawns

Democrats fold during shutdown, bringing no immigration policy

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As the three-day government shutdown comes to an end, relief washes over the Trump administration and Senate members — but hundreds of thousands of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients are yet again put on the backburner.

At midnight on Jan. 19, government operations ground to a halt when Congress members were unable to reach a compromise regarding a federal budget resolution. The biggest debate was over immigration legislation, more specifically, legislation that would protect DACA recipients, about 800,000 young undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. since childhood.

Proposed in 2001 and several times since, but never passed, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as 16 year olds or younger and have been residing in the country for at least five years.

Illustration by Lizzy Choi

After President Donald Trump rescinded the DACA program in September with no plans to replace it, about 122 people per day have lost their DACA status. Because of Congress’s lack of action, about 854 people each week — many of whom have spent the majority of their life in the U.S. — are at risk of losing their jobs, their access to higher education and are in danger of deportation.

Now more than ever, Congress must overcome its partisan ineptitude to pass a permanent, clean DREAM Act and end this unnecessarily perilous situation for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants.

Yet, instead of finally agreeing on a solution for DACA recipients, congressional Republicans decided to use the debate on DACA to score their own political points, including stricter border protection and funding for Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in place of immigrant protections.

Many Republicans believed Democrats would settle with this amendment to the bill and therefore approve a federal budget that neglected to address DACA student protections. They were right. Yes, CHIP helps children access healthcare and this is crucial, but using the amendment as incentive to abandon undocumented immigrant protections is unacceptable.

Equal value and weight should be placed on the lives of young immigrants and young, low-income children, and both groups have the right to safety. The real lives of millions of people should not have been used as a pawns in the budget negotiation.

For months, Democrats in Congress have been presenting themselves as allies and protectors of immigration rights. They made a commitment to protect DACA recipients from Trump and Congressional Republicans’ xenophobic policies, but once things got mildly politically contentious — with just 30 percent of Americans blaming Senator Chuck Schumer and Democrats — the party abandoned immigrant rights for politically expedient waters.

The fact that Democrats surrendered after three days, only one of which was a working day, is despicable. In doing so, Democrats gave up the only leverage they had and wasted crucial time that could have been spent passing legislation.

On Monday night, however, President Trump signed a short-term spending bill that reopened the government. CHIP will receive funding for the next six years, yet there has been no word on what will happen to immigration legislation. The Senate’s new deadline is Feb. 8.

Democrats shouldn’t consider a mere commitment to debate immigration at a later date a victory. Even if the Senate miraculously passes an immigration bill, it would have to survive an unwilling House of Republicans, and even more unlikely, receive approval from President Donald Trump.

It is time that Democrats understand that a replacement for DACA is not an eventual goal. It is not a negotiation tactic or political stunt. DACA is a policy that hundreds of thousands of individuals and families need, and there are real-life damaging consequences each day final legislation is not passed.