Dem leaders pull back from hard-line immigration demand

Democratic leaders are backing off of their demand that “Dreamer” protections be a part of the 2018 budget negotiations. 

While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders had hinged their support for last month’s budget caps deal on a commitment from Republicans to consider legislation salvaging the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, they’ve signaled they won’t hold a similar line heading into next week’s expected vote on an omnibus spending bill. 

{mosads}The apparent change in strategy has angered immigrant rights advocates in and out of Congress, who want the minority Democrats to use their rare leverage on the omnibus government funding package — among the last must-pass bills of the year — to secure protections for the hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. 

“We need a budget or spending measure that includes the Dream Act. Punto,” Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said last week. 

Democratic leaders have kept the rhetorical heat on Republicans to stage a DACA vote, using every opportunity to press Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to bring the issue to the floor. But after Senate Democrats were blamed for a brief government shutdown over DACA in January — and with Republicans likely needing scores of Democratic votes to pass the omnibus — House leaders are not insisting that such a commitment accompany the 2018 spending package.

Instead, Democratic leaders want appropriators in both parties to drop all contentious “riders” for the sake of easing passage of the omnibus and preventing a government shutdown ahead of March 23, when funding expires. 

“I think that’s probably the best policy for us to do,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip. “It’s also politically the most feasible way to get an omnibus passed.”

Hoyer suggested the Democrats’ most effective tool in moving the Republicans to act on DACA is not withholding omnibus votes, but rousing pressure from the public, which polls show is overwhelmingly opposed to deporting the Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors. 

“Our best leverage is 90 percent of the American people — 87 percent — think this ought to be done,” he said.

Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), a co-chairman of the Democrats’ messaging arm, offered a slightly different assessment, predicting the only force likely to move GOP leaders on DACA is pressure from within their own conference. 

“The only likely scenario is that the Republican members of Congress who claim that they support the Dream Act put pressure on the Speaker to say we need to take some action on this,” he said.

Yet Cicilline also acknowledged that Democrats have a unique opportunity to seek concessions on the omnibus, suggesting they should use it to force action on DACA. 

“There are many of us who think we have to use these moments when the Republicans need Democratic votes on an important piece of legislation to demand that some of our priorities be met,” he said. “And this is one of them.”  

In dismantling the Obama-era DACA program last year, President Trump gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a legislative fix. Since then, a federal court has forced Trump to continue the program — a ruling the Supreme Court declined to consider — eliminating some of the urgency facing Congress. 

“There’s not a whole lot of reason to negotiate — to do anything that is not already covered by the court decision,” Pelosi said Thursday.  

“It is necessary for us to pass [the omnibus] to defend our country, to invest in our children’s future, to keep America number one in every respect, to do so in a way that creates jobs,” she added. 

The strategy marks a shift from the debate over the caps deal just a few weeks ago, when Democratic leaders took a dramatic stand in opposing the budget bill to protest the Republicans’ continued inaction on DACA. The day before the vote, Pelosi commandeered the chamber floor with a marathon eight-hour speech designed to highlight the Republicans’ refusal to take up any DACA legislation. The next day, 118 Democrats joined her in opposing a measure that many later hailed as a domestic-policy victory.

The strategic shift hasn’t been overlooked by many liberal Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who continue to press party leaders to take a stronger stand on DACA as part of the omnibus debate.

Last week, a group of 84 House Democrats penned a letter to leaders of both parties urging inclusion of the Dreamer protections in the mammoth 2018 spending bill.

“Congress is long overdue in acting on this issue, and the failure to pass the Dream Act has resulted in countless lives put in peril,” the letter reads. 

Rep. Peter Aguilar (D-Calif.), who opposed a string of recent budget bills to protest the absence of a DACA commitment, lamented the continued inaction.

“This is a big enough issue that we have to say, ‘It has to be solved,’ ” he said.

Still, even the most ardent DACA supporters acknowledge that the political winds have shifted, in part because of the court’s intervention, political concerns related to the encroaching midterm elections and the mass shooting in Florida that’s turned the public gaze — if temporarily — toward gun reform. 

With that in mind, some of the letter’s signatories said the more realistic goal is not forcing action on DACA, but preventing Republicans from using the omnibus to fund Trump’s promised border wall and tougher immigration enforcement provisions being pushed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). 

“The point to concentrate on is: the wall and Goodlatte stuff is a non-starter,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). 

Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the letter serves a dual purpose. To Democratic leaders, it’s designed to send a message that the Hispanic Caucus expects the party brass to keep pressing the issue with Republicans. And to Republican leaders, it’s aimed at delivering a warning that Hispanic voters will hold the GOP accountable for Congress’s inaction in November’s midterms. 

“It’s both,” she said. “We haven’t moved one iota.”

Tags Bob Goodlatte DACA David Cicilline Donald Trump Dreamers Immigration Michelle Lujan Grisham Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan Steny Hoyer
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