NEW YORK – Shrugging off the prospect of a government shutdown, liberal activists are demanding that Democrats protect thousands of young immigrants from deportation, no matter what. The conflict comes to a head this week as the Republicans who control Congress scramble to get enough votes – including some from Senate Democrats – to avoid the partial shutdown.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats are being urged to let the shutdown happen unless Republicans and President Donald Trump agree to restore a program that protects from deportation some 700,000 people who were brought to the U.S. as children and now are here illegally. There are protesters at the offices of Senate Democrats, threats of primary foes for those who don’t push hard enough for an immigration deal and efforts to brand those deemed to have fallen short “the deportation caucus.”
Indeed, immigration is becoming a political litmus test for Democrats, supplanting health care as a defining issue of Trump’s second year as president.
“It needs to be very clear for vulnerable Republicans as well as for Democrats who do not act this week that there will be political consequences,” said Cristina Jimenez of the immigrant activist group United We Dream. “The progressive movement who are going to be the boots on the ground for the Democrats to regain power” in November’s midterm elections, she added, “are going to hold them accountable if they don’t come through.”
Clashes over health care and taxes dominated Trump’s initial year in office, even as his administration cracked down on illegal immigration. The administration has given agents leeway to detain and try to deport a wide range of people in the country illegally, from criminals to otherwise law-abiding residents with jobs and U.S.-citizen children.
Although immigrant rights groups and some liberals protested, those actions did not require congressional approval, and there was limited pressure activists could bring compared to the battle that helped stall repeal of President Barack Obama’s health care law.
That changed in September when Trump announced he’d end, effective March 5, Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which let hundreds of thousands avoid deportation and legally work. Trump tossed the issue to Congress to act before then. That also turned the spotlight on those who have benefited from DACA, men and women who were raised in the U.S. and are the most sympathetic face of the immigrant rights movement.
The Trump administration was “out in front, advancing their agenda and they were basically getting away with it,” said Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group. “Then they picked a fight with well-organized, American kids. They picked the wrong fight and it’s brought attention to all their immigration agenda.”
It was during Oval Office negotiations over a potential DACA replacement last week that, in the course of dismissing one deal negotiated by Senate Democrats and Republicans, Trump used a vulgar word to describe African countries and wondered why the U.S. doesn’t get more immigrants from places such as Norway. That stiffened the resolve of liberal groups to push for a DACA deal this week, at the moment they feel Democrats have maximum leverage.
“Everything we’ve seen from this administration has been this effort to remove people of color and streamline the process for white people,” said Angel Padilla of the anti-Trump group Indivisible. “This week is an opportunity for Congress to reject that racism.”
Still, on Wednesday Republican supporters of a DACA agreement met at the White House and said they needed more time to strike a deal. Republicans congressional leaders are pushing for a short-term federal funding bill instead and hope Democrats in the Senate will not stop it through a filibuster. Senate Democrats declined to block the last short-term deal in December.
Trump has telegraphed how the GOP would attack Democrats should there be a shutdown this weekend.
“The Democrats want to shut down the government over amnesty for all and border security,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “The biggest loser will be our rapidly rebuilding Military, at a time we need it more than ever.”
In fact, some Republican hope that tactic will help them oust Democratic senators in largely white states like Indiana, Missouri and Ohio that Trump won in 2016.
Corey Stewart, a pro-Trump Republican Senate candidate in Virginia, said Trump is picking the right battle.
“It’s a smart fight,” Stewart said. “His biggest promise of the campaign trail was to crack down on illegal immigration and build a border wall. He cannot back down on this.”
Still, Republicans fear they may lose their majority in the House of Representatives, where several of their vulnerable members represent diverse districts and support a DACA deal. Immigration advocates are confident popular opinion is on their side – people from heads of companies like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks to reality star Kim Kardashian have urged a deal.
Todd Schulte of FWD.US, which supports increased immigration, also noted that people previously safe under DACA already are losing protections every day. While the program technically doesn’t expire until March 5, roughly 100 immigrants a day who didn’t renew their enrollment in time are losing permission to work and protection from being deported. That number will rise to 1,200 a day after March 5.