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OpinionEditorial

The federal shutdown masked a deeper question about America

What kind of nation do we want to be?

Immigrants take the oath of citizenship at a

Immigrants take the oath of citizenship at a naturalization service on Jan. 22, 2018, in Newark, N.J. Photo Credit: Getty Images / John Moore

The government shutdown is ending, but the breakdown continues. The day-to-day bickering in Washington might seem petty, but the core conflicts underlying the daily strife are enormous, and they are defining us as a nation.

As the last two weeks have proved, we cannot do the little things, like funding the operations of the federal government, because of the schism on the bedrock issue of what it means to be the United States of America. Whom do we value and whom should we fear?

Are we a nation that lifts up newcomers, or one that accepts only people who’ve already triumphed? Can we commit to controlling immigration, or will we never enforce our laws? Do we still see strong families as central to our strength, and reuniting them as crucial to our future? And do we really believe America should extend its welcome to white Christian Europeans more than to those with darker skin, followers of other religions, or people from less familiar cultures?

Until we come to some kind of agreement on the fundamental question of where we’re headed as a nation, we’ll find it nearly impossible to move forward as one.

The nebulous deal in the Senate Monday that ended a three-day government shutdown buys three weeks of funding for a federal government that’s been lurching along in dysfunctional fits and starts for nearly a decade. Since President Barack Obama was elected, obstructing at all costs and avoiding normal congressional order at all times has become the norm.

Funding ran out for the federal government because Congress and the White House are no longer capable of proposing and passing annual budgets. No budgets means no certainty about what will be funded, which means endless limbo for important work. It’s shameful.

So now these cultural issues are embedded in the budget negotiations. Funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program for six years became part of the shutdown battle because the money that helps states care for 9 million poor children was allowed to run out for the first time, after two decades of uninterrupted bipartisan support. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which Obama put in place to protect 800,000 people brought here illegally as children, people who know no other country as home — became part of the shutdown battle because President Donald Trump declared it should end in March. The real issue is that for more than a decade, there has been no consensus or compromise on comprehensive immigration reform.

And it gets worse every day. Trump was elected on an “America first” platform that put immigrants last. It was aggressive and ugly. Now some members of Congress who second that view, or are afraid of voters who hold it, are blocking a bipartisan consensus to fix DACA as part of a comprehensive plan that secures the borders and has a rational formula for who should be awarded the privilege of coming here.

The politicians have left themselves three weeks to come up with a plan. What’s needed is a full floor debate and vote on the future of immigration and immigrants in the United States. We can and must come up with a fair system of enforceable rules the majority of Americans can support. 

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