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On 'Dreamers' Deal, Democrats Face a Surprising Foe: The Dreamers

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 secure.”

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 wrong.”

“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.”



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