Chuck Schumer and the art of the sellout

February 5, 2018

Khury Petersen-Smith examines the dismal record of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer--and concludes he can't be trusted to defend DACA recipients or anyone else.

WITH A March 5 deadline looming, each day of negotiation between Republicans and Democrats on a solution for immigrant youth with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status before the program ends is harrowing.

With his Twitter rants to taunt Democrats and repeat his ransom demands for extremist anti-immigrant measures, including a "great" wall on the border, Donald Trump is the most obvious villain in this story.

Trump regularly claims that he's the only one standing up to Democrats who are supposedly trying to achieve "amnesty" for all the undocumented. The facts tell a different story.

If you've been listening to the main negotiator for the Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, you know he wants no such thing.

And you'll know from his capitulation to Trump that ended the government shutdown last month with no more than a vague "promise" from Republicans on DACA that Schumer is ready to surrender on a lot more.

In a speech on the Senate floor during the second day of federal shutdown, Schumer spelled out his position on immigration policy.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (Senate Democrats | flickr)

It couldn't be described as a weak-kneed defense of immigrants. It couldn't be described as a defense at all.

"We're all for tough border security," Schumer lectured, "but every expert will tell you that drones and sensory devices and roads and personnel are far more effective than the wall. But because the president campaigned on the wall, even though he said it would be paid for by Mexico, and demands the wall, for the sake of compromise, for the sake of coming together, I offered it."

Just in case anyone still might mistakenly think that he hadn't offered to fund Trump's border wall, he repeated himself: "Despite what some people are saying on TV...that is exactly what happened."

SCHUMER'S OFFER to fund the wall was meant as a bargaining chip in exchange for saving the DACA program. But the Democrats folded on that, too, within 24 hours of Schumer's speech.

This surrender is easy to read as the latest example of the Democrats' utter incompetence at playing the role of opposition party.

Incompetent, they surely are. But Schumer's willingness to sacrifice the lives of migrants facing an even tighter border in supposed defense of DACA recipients--and to then back down from even defending them--is about more than poor negotiating skills.

It is proof of his willingness to collaborate with Trump on central features of the president's agenda, from militarizing the border to trade policy--something evident throughout his career.

Only last September, Schumer emerged from the White House with a grin on his face, alongside House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi after a negotiating session with Trump. Along with the fate of DACA recipients and other immigrants, Chinese food was on the table--since Schumer and Trump share particularly close views about trade with China.

The next day on the Senate floor, Schumer couldn't contain his excitement at being validated by the president who--at least in his mind--takes him seriously. "He likes us. He likes me, anyway," Schumer was heard to say over a Senate floor mic he didn't know was on.

If it wasn't clear that "the art of the deal" is just as much of a cynical game for Schumer as it is for Trump, the senator made it undeniable. "Here's what I told him," Schumer added. "I said, 'Mr. President, you're much better off if you can sometimes step right and sometimes step left. If you have to step just in one direction, you're boxed.'"

These days, Trump mocks Schumer as "Cryin' Chuck" on Twitter and Schumer paints Trump as an unreasonable negotiator who "won't take yes for an answer." But the two have had a close working relationship over years that belies whatever harsh words they exchange today.

One example: Schumer has received more donations from Trump across his career than any other sitting member of Congress.

Trump was still singing Schumer's praises not so very long ago. In January 2016, while running for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough: "Hey look, I think I'll be able to get along well with Chuck Schumer. I was always very good with Schumer. I was close to Schumer in many ways."

BUT IF Schumer is quick to fold on DACA and Trump's wall, it's not because of his rapport with the president alone. One of the cornerstones of his career is so-called "border security"--which, for Schumer, goes together with Islamophobia under the banner of "fighting terrorism."

After the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building--which was carried out by U.S.-born white supremacist Timothy McVeigh--Schumer seized the opportunity to pass legislation...targeting immigrants.

As a member of Congress from New York, he sponsored the Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995 in the House after it had been pushed by President Bill Clinton and sponsored by Joe Biden in the Senate.

The legislation was opposed by civil liberties groups for allowing the government to refuse to reveal evidence used against terrorism suspects who are non-citizens, and for criminalizing donations to charities deemed by the government to be associated with terrorist activity. Such provisions were precursors to the post-9/11 USA PATRIOT Act.

In 2006, Schumer called national attention to the sale of six U.S. ports to the United Arab Emirates-based company Dubai Ports World. The ports were already operated by a foreign company, the British Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. But that didn't stop Schumer from whipping up Islamophobia in a bid to stop the sale, including a press conference involving victims of the 9/11 attacks.

As part of this effort, Schumer collaborated with arch-Islamophobe Peter T. King, the New York Republican member of Congress who would declare a year later that there are "too many mosques in this country."

Later in 2006, Schumer supported King's Secure Fence Act, which funded the construction of 700 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border--a predecessor to Trump's current vision for a more extensive wall.

While many politicians stoke anti-immigrant fear by calling for heavier security at the U.S.'s Southern border, Schumer has distinguished himself by demanding the militarization of the Northern border, too.

"For too long, Northern border security has received too little support when it comes to federal resources," Schumer declared when he announced that $8.8 million would be spent on upgrading security at a border crossing in the small village of Alexandria Bay, New York.

Schumer has also worked to militarize U.S. cities far from the border--particularly his hometown of New York City.

In 2009, Schumer secured $200 million to add to the surveillance and policing apparatus in New York's public transit and ports systems.

He declared that one reason for the funds was to install equipment to detect portable weapons of mass destruction. "It is probably our last line of defense against a nuclear weapon being smuggled into the five boroughs and that is our greatest nightmare," he said with a paranoia that typically accompanies Schumer's efforts to "secure the homeland."

SCHUMER HAS spent decades making the U.S. state more repressive and racist--and the fact that he has ascended to his current position as party leader in the Senate speaks volumes about the Democratic Party.

Despite the fact that Trump's border wall fantasy is unpopular and the DACA program is very popular, the Democrats have entrusted the fate of immigrants to a man who built his career by targeting them.

And Schumer is certainly not the only Democratic leader who is on board with more restrictive borders and greater surveillance. After all, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also supported building the border fence in 2006 when they were Schumer's colleagues in the Senate.

As a party, the Democrats may disagree with Trump on the details, but their practices betray their shared commitment to the goal of restricting migration.

Building a resistance based on the struggles of immigrants and their supporters has never been more urgent. An honest look at Schumer's actions today and in the past show that he and his party are no friends of that resistance.

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