Witcover: Right fight, wrong time for the Dreamers

In the fierce political struggle between the Republican defenders of the troops in the field and the Democrats defending the American immigrant "Dreamers," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell clearly and deftly outfoxed Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Mr. McConnell got the Senate to keep the briefly shut-down government open through Feb. 8, with no vote on the Dreamers' future, to Mr. Schumer's disappointment and embarrassment. President Trump then signed a spending bill enabling payment of military salaries and other expenses.


Mr. McConnell, with President Trump surprisingly quiet for once but in support, played the patriotic card to a fare-thee-well. He argued that our men and women fighting ISIS and other perils of the battlefield, and those at risk in the nuclear threat from North Korea, had to come first.

Mr. Schumer, meanwhile, failed to get a vote resolving the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the Obama policy that allowed certain qualified undocumented immigrants brought here as children to receive work permits. Mr. Trump rescinded the policy last year, and a number of DACA protections begin expiring in March.


The Dreamers' story has been a powerful message, and perhaps when the era of Mr. Trump is over it will yet carry the day. But in the here and now, with so much uncertainty and military turmoil in the world, Mr. McConnell and conservative allies, particularly among the Trump base in the American South and farm states, remained strong for the boys and girls in uniform.

Mr. Schumer and other liberals made a strong case for a DACA vote, as did the Dreamers themselves, and it appeared for a time to be carrying the day among fair-minded Americans. The Dreamers in a sense became the poster children, even in their older years, for the idea that this remains the land of liberty and justice, especially given that their current legal circumstances are not of their making.

The Dreamers also seemed to be viewed as Barack Obama's political godchildren — including by the Mr. Obama-hating Donald Trump, who chose them as a particular target. The new president seemed to be making a point of cleansing the country of them with his deportation initiative, a centerpiece of his broad anti-immigration crusade.

But almost from the start of the Trump campaign and the administration, his America First slogan and his almost fanatical emphasis on firing up hostility toward immigrant communities, particularly those from Mexico and Central America, became a core of his foreign policy.

His repeated campaign rally promise to build a great wall across the southern border, "and make Mexico pay for it," has gone unfulfilled. But it remains a key element in his exclusionary policy and ambitions to challenge the core of this country's proud heritage as a melting-pot of immigrants.

The anti-immigrant climate Mr. Trump encouraged gave Mr. McConnell and like-minded Republicans the muscle to detour, at least for now, the Dreamers' drive for safe haven and an eventual path to American citizenship.

The Dreamers now only a have a few weeks until Mr. Trump's earlier six-month reprieve of his deportation plan expires in March. The president has said he has sympathy for these people to whom the United States has been, as they say, their only home. We will see.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is