The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle

The quest for a deal on immigration is testing the mettle of activists on both sides of the issue — with conservatives and liberals each facing the possibility of a devastating defeat.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLiz Cheney: 'Send her back' chant 'inappropriate' but not about race, gender Booker: Trump is 'worse than a racist' Top Democrat insists country hasn't moved on from Mueller MORE’s bipartisan White House meeting on Tuesday, at which he suggested he would be prepared to sign almost any piece of immigration legislation that was presented to him, caused outrage among conservatives.

But at a news conference with the Norwegian prime minister the next day, Trump reiterated that any deal would have to include the southern border wall he promised throughout his 2016 campaign. 

Any Democratic concession on that topic would appall a significant swath of the liberal base. 


Jim Manley, who served as an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDems open to killing filibuster in next Congress Webb: Questions for Robert Mueller Steyer's impeachment solution is dead wrong MORE (D-Nev.), said that there were clear tensions on every side of the issue.

“I can’t sit here and deny it,” Manley said. “Absolutely, there is going to be tension in the weeks to come. Activists are putting pressure on [Capitol] Hill to act. But no one is going to get everything they want out of these upcoming negotiations.”

At stake is the future of the Obama-era program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The program gave protection from deportation and the right to work legally to around 800,000 people who illegally entered the United States as minors.

Trump announced in September that he would end DACA, though the final deadline is not until March 5. Beneficiaries whose status expires after that date were not given the opportunity to renew their two-year work permits.

Trump has called for Congress to step in. DACA’s protections could be made more permanent by being enshrined in legislation.

Politically, the easiest way to pass legislation may be to attach it to funding measures that must be passed by Jan. 19 in order to keep the government from shutting down.

But Republicans, including the president, would likely demand a raft of conservative immigration reform measures in return for a DACA concession. 

Among the things on the conservative wish list are increased funding for border security, elimination of the diversity visa lottery program and reform to the process by which naturalized citizens can petition the U.S. government to allow members of their extended family to join them here.

Conservatives warn that the president cannot shift away from the approach he outlined on the campaign trail. Any such move, they say, would be considered a sellout.

“What is crystal clear is that President Trump was not elected on a platform of putting forth an amnesty for illegal aliens,” said Dave Ray, the director of communications for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which seeks more conservative policies on immigration.

Ray added that his group would be “reminding” lawmakers and its own members that Trump was “very clear” on where he stood on immigration during the campaign and that FAIR would be “expecting him to deliver.”

Other conservative voices have sounded similar themes.

Rep. Steve KingSteven (Steve) Arnold KingYoung Turks reporter tricks Steve King into tweeting about 'A Few Good Men' villain Holocaust survivor who offered to tour Auschwitz with Ocasio-Cortez calls for her to 'be removed from Congress' Liz Cheney hits back at Ocasio-Cortez over concentration camp comments: 'This isn't model Congress' MORE (R-Iowa), one of the most hawkish Capitol Hill voices on immigration, told a Washington radio show on Wednesday that he did not share the president’s “confidence” that legislation emerging from Congress would respect the rule of law.

Trump’s suggestion that he would sign almost any legislation sent to him seemed to prepare the ground for “DACA amnesty,” King said, according to a Daily Caller report.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter told Lou Dobbs of Fox Business Network that Trump’s Tuesday bipartisan meeting was “a disaster. It was the lowest day of his presidency.”

But Democrats also face calls from their left to make sure they do not give too much away to reach an accommodation with Trump.

On a Wednesday conference call with reporters, Adrian Reyna of United We Dream, an immigrant youth organization, said it was important that Democrats use “the point of leverage that they have to get something that they promised to us.”

Manley, the former Democratic aide, said that while compromise was inevitably going to be part of any deal, Republicans needed not to “overreach with punitive anti-immigration [measures],” since they “would be a non-starter for Democrats.”

The already-complex picture has been further scrambled by a court ruling on Tuesday night that barred the administration, for now, from ending the program. 

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders described the decision as “outrageous.” In a Wednesday morning tweet, the president said it was evidence of how “broken and unfair” the legal system had become.

Some observers suggest that the court ruling could backfire on liberal activists, lessening the sense of urgency around the search for a congressional remedy. 

But whether that is true or not, the battle will come sooner or later — testing activists on both sides of the question as never before.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.