The shutdown of some of the federal government has added a new narrative to America’s debate over immigration. Now unpaid federal workers have become the latest victims, many of them unable to pay their bills.
They join a long list, such as citizens fearful of further waves of unlawful migration, adults brought to the United States illegally as children (“Dreamers”), or workers displaced by once-legal migrants who overstayed their visas. Even businesses that cannot survive without low-wage immigrants cry foul.
For years, the politics of immigration has been a contest over which of the various groups could claim the greatest victimhood. The idled federal employees are only the latest. In President Trump’s demand for stronger border barriers, he tries to highlight the victims of crime committed by a minority of those in the country illegally. Democrats focus on the Dreamers or the children abused after crossing the southern border. Now they also speak for unpaid civil servants.
Given the adversarial nature of democracy and a news media that thrives on controversy, one might imagine a new category of victims in the near future. And then the zero-sum battle over victimhood goes on. And with it, the notion that only one narrative can win.
Rarely does any group of victims acknowledge the shared suffering of the others. But because they play such a central role in the debate, victims can also be the solution. They, or rather the politicians who claim to represent them, must find a higher moral bearing by turning their demand for empathy into an empathetic moment for all. After all, they share a desire to end the mutual misery of a failed immigration policy.
Such a moment of bridge-building has happened in the past and in public. It occurs briefly when a small group of senators crosses party lines to cut a deal that addresses most, if not all, concerns.
As the crisis in Washington comes to a head, it is worth recalling such middle-ground moments. Last year, during the previous government shutdown, a group of senators calling itself the Common Sense Caucus offered a package of compromises on immigration. It took courage for them to see all sides even if the effort failed.
In 2013, a so-called Gang of Eight in the Senate put forth a very comprehensive package. Their humility and mutual respect was driven by an admission of the common suffering. “It’s tragic that a nation of immigrants remains divided on the issue of immigration,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida.
Another “gang” member, the late Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, summed up the mutual needs even better: “The status quo threatens our security, damages our economy, disregards the rule of law and neglects our humanitarian responsibilities. A problem of that magnitude that affects so many of our interests will never be easy to address but never more necessary to address either.”
When senators reach for such compromises, it is really an act of tenderness. A politician must first disarm in the battle and see the needs of others.
In coming days, such an event may happen again in the Senate, the body best designed to replace national trauma with reconciliation. Then the federal employees can get back to work, and perhaps the politics of victimhood can end.