As their guests for last week’s first State of the Union speech by Donald Trump, the Oregon Democrats in Congress invited Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought here as children whose legal status now ends March 8.
The atmosphere turned out to be less than hospitable.
In fact, the last time guests were treated like this was in “Game of Thrones.”
Trump spent much of the speech warning of the dangers of immigration, referring to undocumented immigrants in terms of MS-13, the Salvadoran drug gang.
After boasting repeatedly of his love for Dreamers – “He had a real chance to reach out,” commented Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. “He said he had a big heart for them”— the president moved instead to what Merkley calls an election strategy of “ginning up the fear factor, and becoming the MS-13 president.”
And now the fate of 800,000 Dreamers – including 11,000 Oregonians – who grew up in the United States and typically know no other country, seems increasingly murky.
The president’s refusal to reach a deal to protect the Dreamers – despite their overwhelming support in public opinion polls, including among Republicans – had recently led to a funding cliff that briefly shut the government down. Last month, Merkley was among the leaders of the 18 Senate Democrats who voted against a continuing resolution reopening the government for another three weeks – which, in a time of complete budget collapse, is how we now fund the functioning of the United States.
Merkley explained that since negotiations never take place until a few days before the funding runs out, he saw no reason to renew funding for more than a few days, and start negotiations immediately. The renewed funding for the government runs out again this Thursday, and Merkley says he’ll again try for a very short renewal – although he admits another shutdown is unlikely.
Part of the deal that ended the shutdown was a promise by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow a Senate vote on a Dreamer protection bill, including chances for amendments from both parties. Merkley notes that McConnell has made promises before – including about the Dreamers – and that his promises are not exactly negotiable currency.
(In fact, it seems that a McConnell promise and $1,000 will get you into a fund-raising dinner.)
“We’ll see if that happens,” says Merkley about the vote. In any event, “I’m skeptical we can get 60 votes.”
Not because there isn’t an immigration deal that could get 60 votes; one actually exists, devised by a bipartisan group of senators, which the president first pledged to support and then rejected. Merkley also cites a warning from House Speaker Paul Ryan to McConnell not to pass a funding bill with Dreamer protection attached.
(Ryan has to worry about hard-line anti-immigration Republican House members who make Trump look like the Statue of Liberty. One of them, Paul Gosar of Arizona, responded to Democrats’ inviting Dreamers to the speech by calling for any undocumented immigrant entering the Capitol to be arrested and deported.)
Tuesday night, Trump stressed the dangers of immigration, linking protection for the Dreamers to $25 billion for a southern border wall, and to ending two other immigration programs: the visa lottery and family reunification, which he calls “chain migration.” Trump charged that “under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives” – a statement that was not only hostile but, like his praise of “beautiful clean coal,” transparently untrue.
Speaking for the Democratic senators, Merkley warns, “I don’t think those two things get through without a fight,” pointing out that family reunification “has been part of our immigration policy forever.” He would support “a significant expansion in border security,” although noting that spending happens in annual votes, not in a 15-year, $25 billion “slush fund.”
Since the speech, Trump has repeated his hostile line on immigration, as both the next government funding vote and the March 8 deadline on Dreamers come closer – and the prospect of a deal gets further away.
“Last night was a turning point for me,” Merkley mused bleakly Wednesday afternoon. “I was more optimistic before.
“It was painful for us thinking of everything,” he recalled about the Oregon Democrats listening to the speech. “It was painful thinking of our guests in the balcony.”
Among a blizzard of discouraging messages Tuesday evening, Oregon Democrats got another one:
When Donald Trump is the attraction, be careful who you invite.
Trying for an uplifting note in the evening, the president declared, “Americans are dreamers, too.”
But maybe Dreamers can’t be Americans.
NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 2/4/17.