Liberal unrest threatens Dem immigration strategy
BY RAFAEL BERNAL AND MIKE LILLIS
Democratic leaders fighting to enact the Dream Act this year are taking fire from a surprising group: liberal immigrant rights activists.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) sounded off last week after top Democrats cut a tentative agreement with President Trump to pair a Dream Act with tougher immigration enforcement measures.
More recently, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was heckled in her own district over the deal, with a group of young advocates urging Democrats to expand the reform fight beyond the Dreamers to include the other 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the country.
The episodes suggest the coming debate over immigration reform — a perennial headache for Republican leaders — will also be no small challenge for the Democrats.
Complicating matters further, the immigration activists are a multi-faceted force with their own internal disagreements.
Some activists have been brought into the Democratic Party umbrella and agree with the need for negotiation, according to an immigration advocate who asked for anonymity to speak frankly.
Others fear a deal between Trump and top Democrats would spare the Dreamers while “kicking ICE into overdrive” in persecution of other undocumented immigrants.
Among that second group are activists who would rather accept new border-wall construction — a non-starter for the Democrats — than funding that could be used to hire more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
“A wall isn’t ICE, a wall doesn’t walk into your home and drag you out by your f—— hair,” said the advocate.
Trump’s proposed border wall was central to his campaign, and it’s received the most political attention of all his proposals.
Democrats, led on immigration by Pelosi and CHC Chairwoman Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), have pledged that any deal will not include funding for the wall, interior enforcement or immigration detention centers.
But some activists fear mass deportations will follow any deal that doesn’t protect the families of Dreamers, and they know Democrats can claim a political win by simply blocking Trump’s wall.
“Pelosi needs to recognize that it’s about families and not just [about] Dreamers,” said the advocate. “It seems to me like [activists] are willing to blow up the negotiations to avoid ICE on steroids.”
Ryan M. Eller, executive director of Define American, a Louisville-based immigrant rights group, said the advocacy community had been frustrated with the Democrats throughout President Obama’s tenure, both because Obama stepped up deportations and because Congress failed to enact comprehensive reform, even when the Democrats controlled both chambers.
Those tensions, combined with distrust in Trump, have led to mounting concerns that undocumented immigrants are being denied a voice in the negotiations that will affect them more than anyone else, Eller said.
While Obama deported fewer people than his predecessor, George W. Bush, he focused immigration enforcement on interior removals, rather than border apprehensions.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, Obama carried out just over 3 million removals, compared to Bush’s 2 million.
That generated friction between immigrants and Democrats, because such removals are more likely to disrupt families and communities.
Eller cited a slogan that’s gaining steam among the advocates: “No meeting about us without us.”
“Any time you’ve got 11 million folks who are desperately afraid of being separated from their communities … and possibly being deported, there’s going to be anxiety,” Eller said. “That’s much of what San Francisco was about.”
Pelosi on Wednesday defended the Democrats’ outreach to immigration rights groups of all stripes, saying party leaders — including those representing the ethnic minority caucuses — have been meeting “constantly” with advocates.
“More than once a day, on the phone or in person, House and Senate, at home and here in Washington,” Pelosi said during a press briefing in the Capitol. “We are in constant touch with them.”
Many Democrats and advocates are pushing to bring a “clean” Dream Act to the House floor — one absent any of the enforcement measures championed by Trump and the Republicans. Loading it up with conservative enforcement measures, they warn, could sink the package.
“The more they add on, the more likely it is to fail,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice.
House Democrats have shown unity in targeting the Dream Act as their attainable short-term goal on immigration, but there is some internal debate about how to reach that goal.
Some of the most liberal members of the CHC argue Democrats should use their leverage in December’s budget debate to force passage of a “clean” Dream Act, one that doesn’t offer concessions on border security.
Democratic Reps. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.) were arrested Tuesday outside Trump Tower in New York City, along with protesters, demanding a clean Dream Act.
While even the most left-leaning Democrats are likely to vote for a Dream Act that makes border security concessions within the confines laid out by Pelosi and Lujan Grisham, Democrats would score a major win if they could sneak a clean Dream Act through without risking a government shutdown in December.
Toward that end, House Democrats will launch a discharge petition on Monday designed to force the Dream Act to the floor, even if GOP leaders refuse to do so.
That effort, however, is a long shot — odds even the Democrats acknowledge raise plenty of questions about how Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) intends to proceed.
Ryan’s office did not respond Wednesday to questions about people enrolled in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which Trump is ending in six months. The program protects illegal immigrants brought to the country as children.
Democrats, meanwhile, are warning that Congress must act soon, or both parties will face the types of protests that Pelosi experienced in her district this week.
“The leadership needs to work out some type of compromise that will get this resolved by the end of the year. There must be a resolution; it cannot continue to fester,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.). “And unless we get it resolved I think we’re going to begin to see civil unrest, because the Dreamers are impatient.”
Butterfield also warned, however, that the protesters have to tread carefully or they’ll harm their own cause.
“Public opinion now is in their favor. And I would hope that they would not do anything to upend that public opinion, because the momentum is in the favor of immediate reform,” he said. “There’s a fine line, and I think there’s a point beyond which they should not go, to antagonize the leadership.
“We’re at a very fragile point right now in the negotiations.”