Immigration activists open to negotiating with Trump

Immigration activists open to negotiating with Trump
© File photo

Immigration activists say they are open to negotiating a deal with President Trump, even if it means setting aside a pathway to citizenship for those living in the U.S. illegally.

“This is a different level of panic and fear in our families that I don’t think we can take anything off the table,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented former Washington Post journalist and founder of Define American, an immigration advocacy group.

That message marks a shift from the immigration debate under President Obama, when liberal reform advocates insisted that any legislation must include a pathway to citizenship for the millions of people living in the country illegally. 

Trump’s aggressive deportation strategy has forced a new reckoning, driving reform advocates to consider accepting lesser benefits. 

“First we want to see what he proposes, but there could be some tough choices for Democrats in there,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas). “You don’t have the White House with you. It’s a different dynamic.”

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Trump on Tuesday suggested he wants to work on an overhaul of the immigration system, saying “the time is right” for a deal if both parties are willing to compromise.

The president hinted at an agreement that could provide some form of legal status for undocumented people but said it would not include a path to citizenship.

Democrats and activists have rejected that formula in the past, fearing that arrangement would create a group of second-class citizens without voting rights.

But many Democrats are now wrestling with whether to stick with that position as they approach any potential negotiations with Trump and the Republicans this year. 

“The discussion has to be: Are we setting up two tiers of residents in this country?” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “The desperation you see in the community [means] many people would jump at that opportunity [of legalization] freely, if they could be safe with their families. 

“But the consequences of ‘everything but citizenship’ policy,” he added, “is something that many people would have a lot of trouble with.”

Opponents of a citizenship provision, including most Republicans, accused Democrats of wanting to naturalize millions of Hispanic voters, who tend to vote Democratic.

But Vargas, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) guest at Trump’s speech to Congress Tuesday, said fears about deportations under Trump have upended any political considerations for immigrant communities.

“I don’t think I can say to people, ‘Oh, I don’t know if you’re going to get deported next week when you’re driving, but let’s wait for citizenship,’ ” he said.

The activists’ new willingness to compromise might not matter, as a growing chorus of House Democrats sees little chance of moving immigration reform as long as Trump adviser Stephen Bannon remains a force in the White House.

Indeed, many liberals on Capitol Hill are dismissing Trump’s softer message as bluster, arguing that the influence of Bannon — the former Breitbart News executive who has touted his nationalist views — virtually precludes the possibility of a bipartisan compromise.

“I don’t believe [Trump], because he talks left and walks right,” said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s campaign arm. “At the end of the day, he’s still going to be back to the kind of stuff that Bannon likes to see him do, which is just [to] treat everybody who doesn’t look like Bannon like they don’t belong here.”

Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy organization, is skeptical of a plan that would cancel the path to citizenship because it would imply setting an ad-hoc citizenship ban on a specific group of people.

“It would be counterproductive to exclude a whole class of people from ever having a path to citizenship,” Lopez said.

Lopez, who has butted heads in the past with advocates of restricting immigration, said the issue with Trump’s plan is not in Congress, but with the views espoused by the likes of Bannon, who has said immigrants take American jobs, depress wages and make the country less safe.

“I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals: to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security and to restore respect for our laws,” Trump said Tuesday.

Lopez said he is also wary of the concept of merit-based immigration that Trump put forward in his speech.

“The current outdated system depresses wages for our poorest workers and puts great pressure on taxpayers,” Trump said. “Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others, have a merit-based immigration system.”

“I think that he meant anyone who comes into a country has to be able to support themselves financially,” Lopez said. “Does that mean only rich people get in?” 

Grijalva was more blunt.

“When he says it’s a merit system we’re setting up, that’s a dog-whistle for us that it’s a race issue that they’re setting up, as well,” he said.

Trump’s overtures toward an immigration compromise appeared to mark a shift from his campaign message, which featured a tough law-and-order approach and threats of deportation — not legalization — for the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. 

But activists aren’t celebrating yet.

“[Trump’s] actions speak louder than his words,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

“This is an administration that has decided to start their first month with a shock and awe approach to immigrants and refugees,” she said.

“They can start by undoing the harm that’s been done in this first month, and then we’ll see that this administration is really serious about coming to the table,” she added.

Although activists expressed hope that relief from immigration enforcement could come under a new political reality, they cast doubts on Trump’s willingness to provide said relief.

“It’s hard to trust the softening when the hardening has been so hard,” Vargas said.