Let Democrats Call Trump's Immigration Bluff on DACA

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., listens during a media briefing after a weekly Senate Democratic Policy Luncheon January 23, 2018 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images

We don't know yet how congressional Democrats are going to respond to President Donald Trump's offer to grant eventual citizenship to 1.8 million people brought to the U.S. as children in exchange for slicing and dicing the current immigration system. (Some have responded immediately by inviting so-called Dreamers to attend the president's State of the Union address Tuesday.) But on its face, the offer is a bad deal. Even if you see it only in cold-blooded partisan terms, naturalized immigrants tend to vote Democratic; saying yes to Trump is saying yes to losing future elections.

At the same time, the Democrats will be under enormous pressure to act. There are nearly a million people under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. When it ends in March, about 1,100 people could be deported daily. After Democratic Minority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer announced last week that his party would vote to reopen the government, activist groups like Credo began baying at the moon: "We need to ... force the entire Senate Democratic caucus to come together with one goal—using the next government funding deadline to protect Dreamers without compromising one bit with Republicans' racist anti-immigrant agenda."

That outrage deepened after Schumer spoke with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow that Tuesday evening. Even if the Senate passed a bipartisan bill, he said, it would not get through the House where hard-line conservatives believe everything is amnesty. (Indeed, they are now balking at Trump's offer of citizenship for 1.8 million people living in the U.S. illegally.) Even so, Schumer suggested, there may be a way to pressure moderate Republicans in blue states more friendly to immigrants of all kinds. Let's call it the "Awful Pictures Strategy."

"The awful, awful, awful pictures of Dreamers being deported, I think will rally the nation and the House will be forced to do it," he told Maddow. "If the Senate passes the bill and it's bipartisan, there may be enough moderate and mainstream Republicans in the House, many of whom are vulnerable for re-election who will feel they have to come across, particularly if these sons of guns wait until after March 5th. And I think, God forbid, but the pictures of people being deported will rally the nation, and these more mainstream Republicans admittedly, not a majority of the Republican Party, but enough when they add them to Democrats could pass the bill. And then you have the whimsical—that's a kind word—Donald Trump. He may wake up one morning and say, get this bill done."

This was too much for activists with a dim view of establishment Democrats over the years. If my Twitter timeline is any indication, they seemed to think Schumer was not only caving, and thus surrendering to racism, but also throwing innocent people under the bus when he suggested they sacrifice themselves. Where is the justice in that?

I don't doubt the Dreamers' plight is about justice. But justice alone is not going to produce results. Many wrongly believe we can remove partisan politics from the political landscape, and because so many do, activists mounted a protest last week outside Schumer's house, demanding he stand against Trump by shutting down the government on Feb. 8—a move both wrong-headed and self-defeating.

The thing is, Schumer is right, and he may have been signaling a willingness to do something activists don't appear to see. He seemed to be suggesting that congressional Democrats are preparing to call the president's bluff. He seemed to be saying: "Go ahead and start deporting all those deserving young people, Mr. President. You'll see what happens when you try. It's not going to be pretty."

Trump may not go through with his threat of deporting as many as 3.6 million (the actual number of Dreamers, according to USA Today ), but even if he does, the Democrats are in a position to exploit those "awful pictures" and to hammer the president for months. They could lay the groundwork for real immigration reform down the road when the party, fingers crossed, takes control of Congress.

Polls indicates broad majorities favor giving Dreamers a path to citizenship. At the same time, immigrant rights groups are opposed to changing current legal immigration. If the Democrats say no to Trump's deal, and he starts deporting 1,100 people every day, no one, except insane lefties, is going to blame the Democrats. They are going to blame Trump, and the Republicans who failed to protect people deserving of citizenship. That's a good outcome for Dreamers.

I understand what I am arguing: A good strategy for Dems may be awful in that it causes a lot of collateral damage. Someone could get hurt. Someone's life could be ruined. Someone could even be murdered if returned to a barbarous country. And calling the president's bluff would require the the Democrats to risk appearing to exploit the real pain of their constituency. Time will tell. We may never get that far. But if we do, the Dems should be ready to go with an awful strategy that would work.

John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for Washington Monthly, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.