After engineering the longest government shutdown in history over his fixation on a border wall, it appeared that Donald Trump would back down from the idea and sign a bipartisan agreement that doesn’t fund a concrete barrier but includes $1.375 billion for border fencing as well as an increase in funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. But on Thursday, Trump signaled that he is committed as ever to the wall: in addition to signing the bill and averting another government shutdown, he now plans to declare a national emergency in order to make his racist campaign promise a reality, a move that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced on the floor of the Senate minutes before the vote on the funding bill was to begin. (It passed, and will now go to the House.)
This latest move is likely to enrage Democrats, who had earlier been celebrating a spending bill widely depicted as a “defeat” for Donald Trump. If one views politics through the lens of sports or as a business transaction, then it’s easy to see it as a loss for Trump—who at one point had demanded $25 billion for a concrete wall and then $5.7 billion in December—and a win for his opponents. “The Border Deal Is What a Defeat for Donald Trump Looks Like,” read a headline in the New Yorker, which framed his backing down from demands for billions for his border wall as a loss similar to that of a bad Wall Street deal that “would give Trump about twenty-four cents on the dollar.” “In pursuit of a wall, President Trump ran into one,” wrote the New York Times, adding that “it was arguably the most punishing defeat Mr. Trump has experienced as president.”
But what exactly did he lose? The spending agreement, bipartisan though it may be, signals a dangerous acceptance of the status quo, according to immigrant rights activists. While the bill includes $500 million for “medical support, food and clothing for migrants in detention and alternatives to detention,” they point to the increase in funding for ICE and CBP—up to $23 billion, compared to $21 billion last year—as a sign that this compromise continues to fund the machinery of detention and deportation at a moment of crisis at the border and across the country. The spending bill, which maintains funding for ICE that allows it to detain immigrants at record-high numbers, “represents the ‘enforcement-only’ status quo that Washington has been stuck in for too long,” United We Dream’s deputy director Greisa Martinez Rosas wrote in a statement sent to Jezebel. After news broke about Trump’s intentions to declare a national emergency, United We Dream tweeted out, “So Trump is getting more detention camps, and more detention beds, and more deportation agents, and more broken families AND THE WALL?”
“At this point it should not be lost on anyone that there is no negotiating with the Trump administration on immigration,” Tania Unzueta of Mijente wrote to Jezebel in an email. “Giving in on negotiations with Trump on a border crisis his administration has created is doing his work for him.”
And yet that is exactly what most Democrats have done by supporting the compromise. While progressive Democrats in the House, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, have come out against the bill, largely over its funding of ICE and CBP, and several leading Democratic Senators voted against the legislation on Thursday, it appears most Democrats, even those like Representative Pramila Jayapal—who has criticized not only Trump, but his predecessor, on their immigration policies—are content to accept the compromise this bill represents in order to avoid yet another shutdown. “We’re not trying to kill this bill,” Jayapal, who has said she will probably vote no, told the Washington Post. On Wednesday, before the president’s announcement about the state of emergency, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged people to “support the bill for what is in it.”
The bill, then, will likely pass, but Trump’s move to declare a national emergency highlights a problem that most leaders within the Democratic Party have yet to fully grapple with: their continued refusal to break away from the bipartisan consensus around immigration that has led to where we are today. This includes their inability to come up with any forward-thinking immigration policy beyond a need for increased border security (sans a wall) and a (generally onerous) path to citizenship, as well as their continued belief in bipartisanship in the face of a president who has shown he has no qualms in doing whatever it takes to get what he wants, consequences be damned. (And what he wants is always extremely racist.)
In an interview with the New York Times Magazine last October, United We Dream’s executive director Cristina Jiménez Moreta expressed disappointment and outrage at Democratic leaders whom she felt had not done enough to challenge the Trump administration. “The days are gone for any Democrat to think that saying ‘I stand with immigrants’ is enough. We expect to see them boldly put forward an alternative to the administration’s mass-deportation agenda,” Jiménez said to the New York Times Magazine last October.
As this so-called compromise legislation shows, we’re a long way from that bold alternative. Now we lurch on towards the next crisis.