It’s official. Yet again, the US federal government has shut down, since the bill needed to fund the government has failed to clear the 60 votes required to overcome the filibuster in the Senate. It feels like we’ve been here before, with Republicans and Democrats blaming each other for the shutdown, both sides accusing the other of being extremists, and the American political system looking as dysfunctional as ever. What makes this shutdown different is the policy area that caused it- immigration. Democrats don’t want a wall and want full amnesty for the DREAMERs- those brought to the US illegally by their parents, who are eligible for protection under a programme started by Obama.
The Republican argument is this: the people voted for Trump, largely because of his views on immigration, so he has a personal mandate to enact his proposals. The DREAMER programme represents executive overreach and undermined the rule of law. Democrats have consistently failed to support border enforcement, instead proposing amnesties while saying nothing about the need to deter future illegal immigrants. If Democrats want an amnesty of any sort, they should do so through the conventional legislative process, instead of obstructing the basic functions of government.
The Democrats retort that the Republicans have failed to compromise on immigration, having said that they would do so. The final bill contained funding for the wall, but nothing to safeguard the DREAMERs. More significantly, abolishing the DREAMER programme, or even using it as leverage, is a cruel policy that will hurt children brought to the US as a result of their parents’ decisions. Most of the children will face a very tough life if they are deported, even if they are technically illegal.
In my view, it’s obvious both sides need to compromise. While the wall isn’t good value for money, there is a strong appetite for strong border enforcement- the wall shows the government is serious about securing the border. The Democrats also need to abandon their view that the federal government shouldn’t enforce immigration laws by default, and only deport those who have committed a crime. The vast majority of illegal immigrants should fear deportation. But I don’t believe it’s realistic or humane to try to deport all illegal immigrants. Those who have lived in the US for longer than 15 years, have strong links in the community, or are vulnerable if they are deported (children, the elderly, the disabled), should not be a priority for federal immigration enforcement. So I don’t think it’s fair to use the DREAMERs as leverage, even if their status will ultimately be protected in exchange for funding for the wall. This reminds me of the Conservative Party’s attempt to use the status of EU citizens in the UK in the Brexit negotiations: totally futile and quite cruel.
Overall the shutdown is yet another example of how broken the American party political system is. The political culture at present rewards ideological purity and not some much-needed pragmatism. Each party is afraid of their base not turning out because a deal with the other side is regarded as toxic. It’s this kind of entrenched tribalism that makes politics so unappetising.