How the GOP is Using the Budget Process to Destroy Immigration as We Know It [OP-ED]

By Rinku Sen Jan 23, 2018

As you’ve surely heard, Congress ended the three-day shutdown of the federal government yesterday (January 22) with the passage of a stopgap bill that will fund the government for three weeks. The government was shut down because Congress has not produced a federal budget on time. Lawmakers have to keep using these temporary measures, known as continuing resolution (CR) bills, to keep the government running. 

This time around, Democrats in the Senate attempted then gave up on inserting a DREAM Act into the bill. That means that recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as well as other undocumented young people who didn’t qualify for the program in the first rounds, have to wait until at least February 8 for any relief.

The situation results from two threads of GOP strategy. The first is the party’s insistence on an unpopular federal budget proposal, even within their own party. The second is President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind DACA, which Obama had set up by executive order. Let’s examine each thread now.

The Flawed Budget Process

The federal budget process begins with the president presenting a proposal early in the calendar year that has to pass by October 1, the start of the fiscal year. When Congress doesn’t pass a federal budget on time, they have to use temporary funding bills to keep the government running until it’s finished. The CR bill that passed yesterday is the fifth since last September.

Without the full support of their own party, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Majority Leader Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) could not win their proposed budget without Democratic votes.

“This is all about the Republican incompetence to govern combined with a sinister anti-immigrant view of the world and desire to scapegoat immigrants,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told me shortly after the shutdown ended yesterday. “Lets be really clear that Republicans shut the government down because you have to get 60 votes in the Senate and they didn’t have it.”

That budget lacked Republican support because there was no way to pay for a proposed increase in defense funding without either raising spending caps or cutting domestic programs like environmental protection, health, pensions of federal retirees and many more. So, when Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) talk about “parity,” they mean that non-defense spending has to go, dollar-for-dollar, as high as defense spending. Or alternatively, that non-defense spending can’t be gutted to cover the defense funding. 

Pitting CHIP Against DACA

Enter the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) into the debate. CHIP provides healthcare to kids whose family incomes are up to 200 percent above the federal poverty line. CHIP has to be authorized by Congress every few years, and last year was one of those. Congress hadn’t taken care of it, either through a standalone measure or a CR bill, and the program has been surviving with short-term fixes since October.

The DREAM Act debate goes back to DACA, the 2014 Obama executive order that gave young undocumented people who had been here most of their lives with no criminal convictions a two-year stay on deportation, which they could renew. That temporary status allowed these young immigrants, often referred to as "Dreamers," to work, study and live, but did not get them a green card (permanent residency). In nearly four years, some 800,000 young people have benefitted from DACA. Obama did it this way because Congress had refused to pass a federal DREAM Act giving young undocumented people permanent residency, or, indeed, any other immigration reform.

When the 45th president rescinded DACA last September, he gave Congress a March 2018 deadline to come up with a permanent way to “protect” Dreamers. He also ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop processing new applicants or renewals.

“They are playing with our lives—122 people lose their DACA every day,” Paola Muñoz, the field director for United We Dream, told me yesterday.  

Immigrant rights activists knew they couldn’t wait and started pushing right away to attach a solution to other bills. (It’s quite common to attach non-budget items to a budget bill, and vice versa.) That’s what gave the GOP the ability to scapegoat DACA recipients as the hostage-takers of the federal budget, counting on the idea that most Americans would not consider their plight worth shutting down the government.

The Human Cost of Even Minor Delays

A three-week delay may seem insignificant, but this is the fourth in four months, at a time when the Trump administration is aggressively deporting immigrants who have been here for decades, even a few White ones from Europe. “This is why we cannot wait any longer,” said Munoz. “We’re going to be in Trump’s deportation machine and they’re going to come after us.”

Munoz is a DACA recipient born in Bolivia whose status expires in 2019. Her younger brother and sister also stand to lose their status, and her partner is still without relief. He didn’t qualify under DACA’s age caps but would have under a new DREAM Act.

"Dreamers" and their supporters are furious with Democrats for signing the bill because holding out was really their only leverage with Republicans controlling the House, Senate and White House. Jayapal has no confidence in GOP intentions, “There’s nothing Republicans have said that allow me to trust that they are serious about positive immigration reforms.”

In the end, Congress passed the CR bill with a six-year full funding mandate for CHIP, and nothing more than a promise to discuss DACA. Some observers have argued that this outcome gives Democrats new points of leverage by removing CHIP as a bargaining point. But Jayapal points out that, while CHIP has been extended, the GOP refused to fund federally qualified community health centers, where poor kids actually go to the doctor. There’s nothing to keep Republicans from now holding up that money (or something else of value) until the Democrats give way further on immigration.

The Real Plan

There’s no question that the GOP’s immigration agenda now is about limiting immigration from countries of color including those that Trump called "shitholes" in a bipartisan meeting at the White House. Republicans rejected the bipartisan bill that Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced even though it included money for Trump’s Mexican border "wall," a supposed sticking point. They did this because their actual goal is to end the entire immigration system as we’ve known it for more than half a century.

In my second book, “The Accidental American,” I wrote about the immigration debate of 2004 to 2008. There I quoted Mark Krikorian, the head of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as a hate group. His position was that the days of “mass” immigration had to end. He claimed that the “old” United States had no welfare state, and didn’t have to pay for the education, health and welfare of immigrants. (Missing was the irony that so many of those benefits, like social security, are the result of organizing by immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and their descendants).  

Krikorian further argued that an information-based economy didn’t need thousands of “peasants” from across the world, and that modern technology keeps immigrants from transferring their loyalty to the United States. Krikorian waxed nostalgic for the days when an immigrant would get on the ship and never see their parents again, and was bothered by immigrants helping the kids they’d left behind with their homework. He advocated cutting immigration permissions down to 250,000 a year—a 75-percent reduction at the time—while setting aside 50,000 asylum slots for “the world’s most desperate people.” Nearly a decade ago, I quoted Krikorian on those who say they’re only opposed to “illegal” immigration: “The people who say that are trying to make themselves feel better.”

This idea that all immigration has to be drastically curtailed has moved from the fringe to the center of the GOP’s agenda, and the policy goal posts have shifted accordingly. The most recent sign came a few days ago from Rep Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who chairs the Freedom Caucus. Meadows hinted at some permanent solution for Dreamers in exchange for not just the wall, but also ending policies that allow immigrants to bring over close family members, and the diversity visa lottery. In setting up legal immigration as some kind of enabler of unauthorized movement, Meadows is repeating Krikorian’s exact frame.

“This is not a policy discussion anymore, it’s really a war on immigrants,” said Jayapal. “They’ve been escalating. They started with, ‘We love the Dreamers,’ then [went] on about border security and the wall… Now they’ve decided to talk about ‘chain migration,’ their gross mischaracterization of family unification.”

The Dreamers, of course, have no choice but to carry on, and a lot of their ire is going to be directed at Democrats who caved on the CR bill. Munoz said yesterday, “We will go home, go rest, ground ourselves for one day. Tomorrow we’re going to get up and keep fighting.” She wants the millions of people still in limbo to know this: “Yes, it was a great hit we took today, but don’t give up. This fight keeps going. You’re not alone.”

Rinku Sen is Senior Strategist at Race Forward and a James O. Gibson Innovation Fellow at PolicyLink. She blogs at on the Maven network.