As Democrats warily prepare to negotiate an immigration deal with President
Trump, they face an unexpected political foe: many of the 800,000 young,
undocumented immigrants threatened with deportation whom they are championing.
The pressure from some immigrant activists to reject any compromise that
would tighten border security has frustrated Democratic leaders, who recognize
the political risks of being labeled the party of open borders —
a potentially lethal tag as they seek to regain support from working-class
voters across the Midwest.
Fearful of concessions to Mr. Trump that could increase immigration enforcement
aimed at their families and friends, the activists are targeting Democratic
congressional leaders with loud political protests. And Democratic politicians
may be vulnerable. They have already shifted to the left on a number of
issues, such as health care, as they try to take advantage of liberal
fervor stoked by the Trump era.
But moving too far to the left on border security could hold serious risks
for a party that lost the presidency with defeats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin,
Michigan and Iowa — all states where immigration remains a hot-button issue.
John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said a Democratic pushback on border
security would reinforce “the perception that the Democratic Party
has largely abandoned and forgotten about the white working class.”
So far, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer
of New York, the Democratic leaders, are staying pragmatic, even in the
face of protests that have been personal and cutting. (Activists called
Ms. Pelosi a liar in San Francisco.)
They have already signaled that they are willing to consider Republican
demands for increased enforcement along the border with Mexico in exchange
for a legislative fix to the threatened Obama-era program called Deferred
Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which protects young immigrants
brought to the country as children.
“It is naïve for us to believe that we will get 12 Republicans
to vote for DACA or the Dream Act without putting something on the table,”
said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, an co-author of the Dream
Act, which would offer a path to citizenship for certain undocumented
immigrants who arrived as children. “There’s always going
to be a group that wants more. There are some people who want all or nothing.”
Democrats need to be mindful not just of white working-class voters but
all voters, said Cornell Belcher, who worked as one of President Barack
Obama’s pollsters during his 2008 presidential campaign. Democrats
have to “thread a fine needle,” he said, because polls show
that voters broadly “feel as though their borders need to be more
But activists worry that any compromise could carry a very personal price:
Their own long-term safety might be secured only in exchange for an increased
threat of deportation for their undocumented parents and friends who do
not qualify for such protections under the program.
That is a deal that many of them are not willing to take.
“We are going to do whatever it takes to push both parties to pursue
what we are demanding,” said Cristina Jiménez, executive
director of United We Dream. “We don’t want a situation where
my brother, who has DACA, will have relief from deportation, and we will
have more enforcement and more ICE agents who end up going after my mom
and my dad.”
The prospect of a
strange-bedfellows deal on one of the most contentious political issues of the last two decades
emerged last month after Mr. Trump and the two Democrats dined at the
White House. The working dinner set the stage for an end-of-the-year clash
in Congress over border security, limits on immigration and the fate of
the young immigrants known as “Dreamers.”
Mr. Trump had
announced an end to his predecessor’s program before the dinner, but his willingness to pursue a bipartisan legislative deal to enshrine
the program into law set off a furious response from conservatives on
television news programs that the president is known to watch.
That has made the legislative path forward
far from certain.
Mr. Trump is under pressure from inside and outside his administration
to insist on an array of tough immigration control measures in exchange
for what his supporters view as “amnesty” for the undocumented
immigrants. Administration officials say he will soon release a set of
principles that will guide his deal-making with the Democrats.
Conservatives want those principles to include a call to limit the number
of new legal immigrants and emphasize the entry of high-skilled workers
instead of the family members of immigrants already in the country. They
want to expand the
“E-Verify” system to ensure that businesses do not hire undocumented workers. They are insisting
on stepped-up immigration enforcement throughout the country’s interior.
And they want Mr. Trump to get his wall along the southern border.
Immigration activists reject such demands as meanspirited and too far-reaching.
Previous legislative efforts during the administrations of George W. Bush
and Mr. Obama considered that breadth of immigration enforcement, but
only in exchange for a path to citizenship for all 12 million of the undocumented
immigrants in the country, not the smaller pool of so-called Dreamers.
Those young immigrants and their allies say they will not accept what they
consider draconian measures in exchange for a deal on DACA, or on the
Dream Act, the bill dating back to 2001 that would provide a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants brought
in illegally as children.
“I think Senator Schumer crumbles under pressure just so he can deliver
on something,” said Cesar Adrian Vargas, an immigrant-rights advocate
and a DACA recipient.
But the larger constellation of immigrant-rights groups are divided.
Veteran activists view the no-compromise strategy as shortsighted and unlikely
to succeed. While few said they were willing to work directly with Mr.
Trump the way they worked with Mr. Bush during past immigration fights,
they also said they recognized the need to compromise.
Janet Murguía, president of
UnidosUS, formerly the National Council of La Raza, said that she understood that Mr. Trump would need to be part of the
deal, but that she cringed at the thought of ever reaching out to a president
who kicked off his campaign by claiming that Mexican immigrants were “rapists”
and “criminals” and who often told crowds across the Midwest
that immigrants threatened their jobs.
“I don’t think someone who is literally throwing rocks at you
and demonizing you can have credibility at the table to say they want
to engage,” Ms. Murguía said.
White House officials have not been on strategy conference calls organized
by the immigration groups, as some of Mr. Bush’s aides were during
the legislative efforts to pass an immigration overhaul in 2006 and 2007.
But immigration activists and lawmakers who went through those unsuccessful
fights said they could not win without compromising.
That drama is likely to play out at the end of the year as lawmakers in
both parties face a mid-December deadline to fund the government and extend
some popular initiatives like the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The expectation is that Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, will allow the immigration
issue to be settled as part of the budget deal.
If that happens, some immigration rights activists say Democrats will have
no choice but to accept some Republican demands in exchange for legalizing
the young immigrants.
Democrats also must weigh the political risk of being seen as weak on security
issues as they try to recover from their 2016 losses.
During the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual conference
last month, Kathleen Wells, a black radio host, challenged several members
of Congress to explain why black Americans should embrace allowing more
immigrants to remain in the United States who might compete with them
for jobs. Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California, responded
by saying it was critically important that blacks and other minorities
not allow themselves to be “divided and pitted against each other.”
Shortly after protesters interrupted a news conference she was holding
in San Francisco last month, Ms. Pelosi told reporters that she understood
the activists’ frustration, but said they were “completely
“We are determined to get Republicans votes to pass the clean Dream
Act,” she said. “Is it possible to pass a bill without some
border security? Well, we’ll have to see.”