Left flexes muscle in immigration talks

Democrats are leaning in hard in the new border talks under pressure from the party’s left flank, which is pushing to limit law enforcement operations against immigrants in the country illegally — and complicating negotiations to prevent another government shutdown in the process.

The conference committee seeking a bipartisan agreement on Homeland Security funding is well stacked with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), which has long advocated for a reduction in detention beds maintained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — an issue that's emerged as a major choke point preventing a deal.

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And Democratic leaders including Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiJohnson eyes Irish border in Brexit negotiations Mueller report fades from political conversation Five key players in Trump's trade battles MORE (D-Calif.) are also being pushed by a new crop of young liberal lawmakers — most notably freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezOmar says US should reconsider aid to Israel Pro-Trump Republican immigrant to challenge Dem lawmaker who flipped Michigan seat 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE (D-N.Y.) — to limit the powers of ICE or to eliminate the agency altogether.

The combination of forces is roiling the budget debate, as lawmakers scramble to reach a deal on funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) before Saturday, and disagreements over interior enforcement have risen to become as knotty as those over the border wall.

The debate is also highlighting a new reality in the long-running fight over immigration and immigrant rights under a divided government, sending the clear message that the liberal-leaning Democratic Caucus is ready to fight for reforms after years of congressional inaction on the issue.

The power shift has been welcomed by immigrant rights advocates, who have spent years pressing Congress — unsuccessfully — to repair a national immigration system that all sides of the debate concede is broken.

The new dynamics have also not been overlooked by Republicans, who have long argued that the Democrats are far more liberal than the country at large — and are moving left. The push to reduce detention beds, the GOP critics charge, is just the latest evidence of that leftward shift.

One Republican source compared the dynamics to that of the conservative House Freedom Caucus forcing former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbyists race to cash in on cannabis boom Rising star Ratcliffe faces battle to become Trump's intel chief This little engine delivers results for DC children MORE (R-Ohio) to demand far-right policies in budget debates, even if it snarled efforts to keep the government running. 

“The left flank is moving the goal post on the border wall and now on interior enforcement, just like the Freedom Caucus did on so many issues for BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLobbyists race to cash in on cannabis boom Rising star Ratcliffe faces battle to become Trump's intel chief This little engine delivers results for DC children MORE,” said a GOP appropriations source.

Yet some Democrats pushed back against the notion that the insurgent liberals of the freshman class are driving the current budget debate to the left. They are quick to note that a reduction in detention beds has long been on the CHC’s wish list. Now that the group has three members taking a lead in the Homeland Security talks — Reps. Lucille Roybal-AllardLucille Roybal-AllardDHS wants to shift money to immigration enforcement: report Latina leaders: 'It's a women's world more than anything' Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment MORE (D-Calif.), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarDemocratic leaders seek balance amid liberal push to go big on immigration Katherine Clark quietly eyes leadership ascent The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck MORE (D-Calif.) — they’re making the most of the opportunity by pressing hard to codify the change.

“It's always been an issue for Democrats, but for the CHC in particular. ... I don't think those guys require a push,” said a senior Democratic aide. “CHC has been talking about it since the dawn of the immigration debate.”

Ocasio-Cortez has quickly made waves — and built a huge following — since arriving in Washington, building an enormous social media presence in large part for her advocacy of liberal positions that include a “Medicare for all” health care system, an ambitious environmental agenda and the elimination of ICE.

The aide said that, while the Hispanic Caucus is driving the detention bed issue, Ocasio-Cortez and the ascendant left are making it more prominent.

“What they have done is raise the awareness of it,” the aide said.

There are currently about 42,000 detention beds maintained by federal immigration enforcers. As part of the budget talks, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE and the Republicans have proposed raising the number to 52,000, while the Democrats' counteroffer would put the number below 36,000.

Within that debate, a nuanced sticking point emerged when Democrats insisted on a 16,500-bed cap for detainees apprehended in the interior of the country, as opposed to the border — a demand rejected by GOP negotiators. The Democrats say the cap will force ICE to focus more intently on immigrants in the country illegally who have committed crimes, in lieu of targeting others indiscriminately.

On Monday, ICE acting Deputy Director Matt Albence painted a different landscape, saying that ICE agents have made interior arrests of more than 20,000 immigrants. Most of them have criminal convictions and are slated for deportation, he said, warning that a cap on beds would be “extremely damaging” to the nation’s public safety.

“We will be immediately forced to release convicted criminals in our custody,” he said.

A short time later, Trump piled on, accusing Democrats of harboring immigrants in the country illegally for political ends.

“The Democrats want them to go into our country. That’s why they don’t want to give us what they call the beds,” Trump said from the White House, where he was hosting a group of sheriffs. “It’s much more complicated than beds.”

Amid the impasse, there's a growing sense that Congress will again be forced to pass a short-term spending bill to keep the government from closing — an event leaders in both parties are hoping to avoid so shortly after the longest shutdown in the nation's history.

Democratic negotiators on Monday sounded an early warning, however, in the potential push for a continuing resolution (CR), saying they won't accept any CR that doesn't include explicit language preventing the administration from shifting funds unilaterally either to Trump's border wall or an increase in detention beds.

“A so-called clean full-year CR for Homeland Security would allow the Trump administration to increase funding for both physical barriers and ICE detention beds,” said a House Democratic aide. “Democrats cannot support a full-year CR for Homeland Security without significant anomalies.”

Jordan Fabian and Scott Wong contributed.