President Trump told Democratic leaders Tuesday that he would be “proud” to shut the government down if Congress refuses him $5 billion for a border wall. A shutdown is virtually the only situation where Trump could back himself into such a corner that he would accept the wall-for-Dreamers trade that Democrats offered, but he rejected, earlier this year. Yet Democrats aren’t even bringing immigrants up. This is a tragedy for the immigrants who are counting on them.
After Democrats listened to Trump rant about “terrorists” coming across the border—who a Trump wall would supposedly keep out—all they could say is that they wanted more security and that they didn’t want to shut the government down. That’s not good enough. Democrats need a pro-immigrant exchange for wall funding—a deal where both sides can walk away with a win. If they don’t, Trump could win this fight, leaving immigrants with nothing to show for the wall.
Democrats have entirely dropped their demand from earlier this year that any wall funding be tied to the Dream Act—which would provide status to unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children. Indeed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the media that those are “two different subjects,” and she wouldn’t reup the offer. Democrats have even already given Trump a way to claim victory by agreeing to $1.6 billion border “fence” funding for this year.
So as it stands right now, Democrats are going into a shutdown fight over immigration where the worst case scenario for Trump is $1.6 billion in fences, and the best case scenario for Democrats is nothing. That’s a terrible negotiating stance. They should at least say, “We’re happy to give you more money if you give us one of our immigration priorities.” That gives Trump a landing spot where he can get his $5 billion, but Democrats and immigrants get something in return.
Perhaps the political calculation is that Trump will harm himself long term with a lengthy shutdown, but when Republicans shut down the government in 2013—while they took a short-term hit in the polls—it made no difference to their 2014 outcomes. Indeed, the GOP kept the House and took over the Senate that year. Trump remembers this, and even thinks that the shutdown could have worked for Republicans, so he may just hold for what he wants.
Democrats may think they won the House this year by ignoring immigration. But Trump won’t allow them to do that, so as a strategic manner, they should put up a pro-immigrant counteroffer, and leave it out there just in case Trump will take their life preserver during his shutdown. It’s still a very long shot, but without the offer, the shutdown brings them no upside and plenty of downside.