Senator Tester Comes Around on Dreamers

Back in 2010, Senator Tester cast his most disappointing vote, refusing to side with the DREAMers (young people who had come to the United States with their parents who were undocumented immigrants), arguing at the time that ensuring their legal status in the U.S. would represent a dangerous step towards amnesty.

Tester received an incredible amount of heat from the Left for his vote, a vote that was both politically and morally wrong. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas famously called the Senator “an asshole” and said he wouldn’t work to his re-election while local progressives saw the vote as a decision to put politics ahead of young immigrants.

At the time, I speculated that it was a misguided political calculation that Republicans could successfully exploit a vote to protect these kids as there’s almost nothing Republicans like more than demonizing immigrants, especially if they are people of color.

Well, Tester won re-election against Dennis Rehberg despite the vote and criticism from the online left. And more importantly, he’s come around on supporting the DREAMers, issuing a statement arguing that Congress must act to protect them. From Buzzfeed:

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the only sitting Democrat who voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, said in a statement Tuesday that “breaking a promise to these children — who are here through no fault of their own — is not the solution,” and called for Congress to “provide a way forward for innocent kids.” Tester is up for reelection next year in a state that Trump won by more than 20 percentage points.

Asked Tuesday about his seeming change of opinion since 2010, Tester said, “I think that there’s an opportunity here to do some good work with comprehensive immigration reform. I don’t support what [Trump] did. I think it’s ill-informed, I think it rips families apart, and it’s not what this country stands for.”

That Tester has come around on the issue is significant. It’s not as if Montana has become more welcoming to immigrants in the years since 2010. The state voted overwhelmingly for a nativist racist for President in November and Montana Republicans have successfully demagogued on issues like building a wall between the US and Mexico and Syrian refugees. The politically sensible move would be for Tester to stick to the 2010 vote and, like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, argue against letting these kids who’ve only ever known the U.S. as home continue attending college, contributing to our economy, and serving in our military.

And you’d have to be a damn fool not to know that Matt Rosendale or whichever Republican comes out of their primary will run ads critcizing Senator Tester for suggesting that migrant children should be treated like human beings.

That Tester changed his position demonstrates that I was perhaps unfair in 2010. When I criticized the Tester vote back in 2010, people close to the Senator tried to convince me that the vote was not primarily about winning elections and I wasn’t sure I believed them. Today I suspect that while political considerations were certainly part of the calculation, as Tester himself acknowledged today, I don’t think they drove his vote.

I think a more important factor then was that Tester didn’t know enough about the issue and perhaps, as a Montanan, hadn’t thought enough about immigration status. I know his vote in 2010 wasn’t intended to be hateful, probably wasn’t entirely political, and most likely, just reflected a failure of imagination and research, something he acknowledged today:

While he suggested politics may have motivated him seven years ago, he called accusations that he’d flipped on the issue for political reasons “total bull.”

“I’m doing it because it’s just wrong fundamentally to pull families apart. Maybe that issue I didn’t fully understand in 2010, too,” he said, arguing a clean vote to give young undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship was the best way forward.

Politicians who flip-flop to meet the political winds deserve our contempt and scrutiny, but those who evolve their views into more humane, more compassionate views, especially when those new views go against the political winds of our state, deserve credit. That Senator Tester has learned from, admitted, and begun the process of reversing his earlier mistake on legal status for DREAMers is incredibly encouraging.

Senator Tester is still not where I’d be on immigration and likely never will be. But it is important to acknowledge when one of our elected officials listens to criticism of a vote, educates himself, and improves his position. We should absolutely keep the pressure on him to vote for any bill that protects these kids and hold him accountable if he fails to do so.

As satisfying as it’s been to send faxes, letters, and calls to Senator Daines and Representative Gianforte, even though they clearly aren’t listening, it might feel as good or even better to send a note to Senator Tester thanking him for taking a stand against the President’s inhumane act and encouraging him to go even further to make sure that they can remain here in their home.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • I’ve always considered his 2010 vote a crass political calculation. And as noted above, possibly also driven by ignorance, although ignorance is no defense, and a questionable plea in mitigation. But once a crass political calculator, always a crass political calculator. If he votes for the Dreamers, good. But I’ll never be convinced he did the right thing because it was the right thing to do.

    • I don’t know, James. That’s a little more cynical than my view. I’ve certainly become more aware of problems in the world and evolved my position for the better. Haven’t you ever done that?

      And I don’t get the political calculation. If Tester were trying to score politically, the easy move is to by anti-immigrant, anti-Dreamer. Montana has a deep streak of xenophobia that, if anything, is worse than it was in 2010.

    • I’ve got to agree with James here. It is easy and politically expedient to vote against a bill you know will pass, and for one you know won’t pass (even the same bill) in order to curry favor with whichever group you think you need to win the next election. “Crass political calculator” defines Jon Tester’s many votes, particularly committee votes intended to send signals, curry favors, and raise campaign funds.

  • I agree with James. Don, a flip-flop isn’t necessarily confined to a narrow time frame. Tester voted
    against the Dreamers in 2010 for reasons I can not agree with or even fathom. The political winds have changed, maybe only slightly, but definitely they have changed. Voila,, Senator Tester has a change of heart. If his vote in favor of the Dreamers isn’t a flop, I don’t know what it is because the underlying factors remain the same.

    • I feel like I keep asking the same question here, though. In what way have they changed that Tester benefits politically from the new position? Montana voted overwhelmingly for a racist who called for a GIANT WALL to be built between the U.S. and Mexico. Isn’t the politically savvy move to not change his position?

      I’m as critical of anyone when it comes to flip flops for political purposes, but I don’t think either of you are making a very good case that that’s what happened here.

  • Come election time certain groups issue “scorecards.” Most voters if they think about it at all might rely on, say, a Montana Wilderness or NRA scorecard that says Tester or whoever gets and 80% or a 20%. Tester’s staff, knowing this, tells him where to put his votes to get the best results. He can usually vote in either side of a bill without affecting the outcome. So voting records are essentially meaningless

    On close votes they huddle behind the scenes to decide who will take the heat for crossing party lines, etc. With Obamacare, had the Republicans really wanted it repealed, they could have mustered their forces, threatened members with primaries, loss of committee positions, funding of pet projects … they did not want its repeal. It was all for show. They “allowed” certain party members to “save” it by jumping ship. Kabuki Theater, nothing more.

    • “With Obamacare, had the Republicans really wanted it repealed, they could have mustered their forces, threatened members with primaries, loss of committee positions, funding of pet projects … they did not …”
      No, Toke, that’s exactly what they did. Just one example, Zinke calling Murkowski and threatening to halt Alaska project funding. The gambit failed, though.

  • I think we need to give Senator Tester some leeway here and trust him when he says he is now more informed than he was in 2010. I struggle with this issue myself — as parent you want your children to grow up and do better than you and you want to provide them with every opportunity possible. A parent is obligated to provide certain things for their child so I struggle with why an immigrant parent is not working to obtain citizen status and ensuring their future as US Citizens.

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