The Jewish community does not exist in a vacuum. When the United States government shuts down, costing the economy $1 billion a day and leading to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, it impacts us. Beyond that, many of the decisions that impact the Jewish community, from aid to Israel to supporting our community institutions and protecting our right to live according to the dictates of our conscience, are made by the US government. That is why the recent shutdown of the US government and the prospect of another one next week are of grave concern to us as Jews and as Americans.
The recent shutdown of the US government is only the latest example of how polarization and the insistence on ideological purity have made our government so dysfunctional that it cannot even complete the basic task of keeping the government open.
The good news is that there is a group of activists in Congress and among the public at large that is working to change that and has seen some signs of success.
The No Labels movement consists of Republicans and Democrats who are committed to putting country above party. Their motto is “not left, not right, but forward.” They believe in bringing people from across the political spectrum together to reach common-sense solutions to the challenges facing us as a nation.
In the House of Representatives, No Labels helped to organize the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of Members of Congress who are committed to working together to fix rather than fight. Among the caucus’ achievements are a plan on health care that addresses some of the major shortcomings in the Affordable Health Care Act by increasing subsidies to stabilize the health insurance market and allowing the states to be more innovative. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington), the Chairman and the Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Health Committee have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
In the Senate, the Honorary Co-chairs of No Labels, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) were instrumental in organizing the Common Sense Coalition, a bi-partisan group of Senators committed to finding common ground on issues of concern.
The most recent issue to bring our government to a grinding halt is DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals), an Obama-era program that allows illegal immigrants who were brought here as children to remain and work in the United States. These young people did not break the law themselves. The United States is the only home they have ever known. They work, pay taxes, and follow the law. On September 6, President Trump suspended the DACA program and gave Congress six months to come up with a solution.
Two attempts at resolving the issue appeared to be on the brink of success but fell short. On September 13, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) announced that they had reached a deal with President Trump under which the protections of DACA would be enshrined in law and Democrats and Republicans would agree on a package of enhanced border security measures that would not include a wall along the Mexican border. A day later, President Trump tweeted that no agreement had been reached and that any deal would have to include the wall.
At a January 8 televised meeting with a bi-partisan group of senators on immigration, President Trump indicated that he would consider a path to citizenship for all illegal aliens and encouraged the senators to come up with legislation that would provide for both legal status for DACA beneficiaries and enhanced border security, which he would sign. Later that day, a bi-partisan group of senators, led by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), agreed on such a package. It was at a White House discussion of the proposal that President Trump used a vulgar term that cannot be printed in this newspaper to question why we get so many immigrants from certain countries.
With no agreement reached, Senate Democrats blocked the passage of a continuing resolution to keep the government open.
As the government shutdown began, the honorary co-chairs of No Labels, Senator Collins and Senator Manchin, swung into action. They organized a bi-partisan group of senators who prevailed upon the leaders of both parties to move away from the brink. The majority of Democrats voted in favor of a continuing resolution to end the shutdown and keep the government open through Thursday, February 8. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) agreed to allow a vote on immigration legislation.
The agreement on re-opening the government is an important step forward and a significant accomplishment for the No Labels movement, but the crisis is far from over. If an agreement on the status of DACA beneficiaries and border security is not reached shortly, we will be looking at another government shutdown.
Resisting compromise and insisting on ideological purity
may well be a way to appeal to the base and campaign contributors, but it is no way to run a government
It is clear that the path forward is a bi-partisan agreement along the lines of the one reached by Senator Durbin and Senator Graham. The deal would likely include:
- Legal status for DACA beneficiaries
- Enhanced border security
- An end to “chain migration,” which allows immigrants to sponsor their relatives
- Extending protected status for immigrants from Haiti and elsewhere who are in the United States because of natural disasters and violence in their home countries
A number of details would have to be worked out, most notably the status of the family members of DACA beneficiaries. Any agreement reached will be far from perfect.
Generous immigration policies made it possible for our parents and grandparents to escape from pogroms, oppression, and poverty to begin new lives in America. They built the greatest Jewish community in the history of the diaspora. Their achievements in a wide range of fields have helped to make America great. Members of other immigrant communities have had similar experiences and achievements.
Restrictive immigration policies and quotas that were in force from 1924 to 1945 led to millions of Jews being trapped in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.
The vast majority of illegal aliens and the millions of would-be immigrants around the world came or seek to come here for the same reason our parents and grandparents did – to build better lives for themselves and their children. I believe that a path to citizenship for the law-abiding immigrants already here and increased legal immigration for those who wish to come will make America stronger.
I also recognize the need for enhanced border security and screening to keep out the few who are criminals, drug dealers, and terrorists. It will also make the system fairer by preventing people from jumping the line ahead of people who have followed the legal process and have been waiting to immigrate for many years.
The proposed compromises will fall short of achieving those goals. I am particularly troubled by the proposal to limit sponsorship to spouses and minor children, which will mean leaving parents, adult children, and siblings behind. But given the current lineup in the White House and Congress, I realize that the kind of immigration policy I and many others envision is not achievable at the present time. The proposed compromise would achieve two important goals, providing legal status for the DACA beneficiaries and enhancing border security. Failure to reach a compromise would bring us no closer to the kind of immigration policies favored by either end of the political spectrum. It would leave the DACA beneficiaries in legal limbo and could result in a disastrous government shutdown. This should not be allowed to happen.
As we look to the future, Republicans need to understand that though they control the White House and both houses of Congress, their margin of control is narrow and the population of the country is almost equally divided. The way forward is to work with the Democrats.
Democrats need to understand that, while Donald Trump may well be vulgar and crass, his penchant for making outrageous statements was well known to the public before he was elected. Democrats can and should work to regain control of Congress in 2018 and the White House in 2020. But they cannot let their distaste for President Trump get in the way of working with him and his Republican colleagues to do the people’s business.
Resisting compromise and insisting on ideological purity may well be a way to appeal to the base and campaign contributors, but it is no way to run a government.
The founders of our country disagreed bitterly about many things. But they realized the need to compromise to create a government that would protect the needs of each individual and the community as a whole. Benjamin Franklin said that he supported the adoption of the Constitution not because it was the best possible, but because it was the best achievable, given the time and circumstances.
We need that same spirit today. That is why I have decided to become active in the No Labels movement. We are not asking our elected officials to compromise on principle. We are asking them to work for principled compromise that achieves what we can now, and recognizes and accommodates the legitimate concerns of those who disagree with us and saves the rest of the fight for another day.
Manny Behar, former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and aide to public officials, is now a member of the New York Steering Committee for No Labels. To find out what you can do to help, go to nolabels.org or contact Manny directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.