House Democrats signaled confidence Tuesday that fully embracing young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” will be a winning political issue in 2020 as their party seeks to draw a sharp contrast with President Trump.
The decision of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to introduce a bill to provide a path to citizenship for 2 million immigrants who have lived in the country illegally since they were children also illustrates the rising political clout of a group that is ineligible to vote.
Dreamers, who a decade ago were cautiously emerging to tell their stories in public, have now assumed a central role in the nation’s immigration debate, and their fate has become a focus of presidential election cycles since the failure of the Dream Act in 2010.
For House Democrats, the introduction of the Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which would offer the young immigrants green cards, is as much a political statement as it is a legislative initiative, given that the bill, if approved, would face steep odds in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Though Pelosi said Tuesday that there “should be nothing partisan or political” in consideration of the bill, the nation’s highly polarized immigration debate, turbocharged in the Trump era, has injected the measure with heavy symbolism. The proposal was announced a day after the White House unveiled a budget proposal that would put billions of dollars toward a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and would increase immigration enforcement and border security.
Immigrant rights activists said the new Dream Act represents a shift after two years in which Trump and his conservative allies sought to drive the immigration debate to the right, focusing negotiations on enforcement provisions.
After a massive midterm win for House Democrats, “this is an opportunity for us to have a conversation on our terms, in which the Dream Act is not paired with funding for border enforcement,” said Lorella Praeli, who advised Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and now serves as deputy national political director at the American Civil Liberties Union.
In September 2017, Trump moved to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started by the Obama administration. The program has provided two-year work permits to 800,000 dreamers. Trump’s bid to end it has been held up in federal court.
Trump tried in early 2018 to package an offer of citizenship for dreamers with immigration enforcement provisions, including billions of dollars for his border wall and changes to laws to speed up deportations, as well as sharp cuts to legal immigration. The measure was soundly defeated in the Senate, with Democrats and some Republicans opposing the proposal.
“We shouldn’t be giving in on our values just because many Republicans have lost a sense of reality,” Praeli said, “and are trying to use people living with tremendous amounts of uncertainty . . . as bargaining chips for a hard-line agenda they proved they can’t move.”
To a degree, the current debate also represents a shift from nearly a decade ago when the Dream Act fell short of the votes needed in the Democratic-controlled Senate to overcome a potential filibuster. Five Democrats joined most Republicans in voting against advancing the bill, and a sixth, Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) announced opposition but missed the vote, despite a massive lobbying effort from President Barack Obama.
Since then, Democrats, under increasing pressure, have moved to the left. In 2012, during his reelection campaign, Obama used his executive power to establish Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a move credited with bolstering support from Latino and Asian American voters.
In 2016, Clinton pledged to go further than Obama had on deferred-action measures, while Trump vowed to overturn DACA on his first day in office. Trump’s equivocation for more than seven months before doing so was interpreted as evidence of his trepidation over the political consequences. Polls show widespread public support for providing legal status to the dreamers.
But immigration hawks cautioned that support for dreamers should not be viewed in a vacuum that discounts the public’s concerns over border security. Republicans have argued that offering an “amnesty” to immigrants without tightening border controls would lead to increased illegal immigration.
“Politically, it seems to me the president is in a good position to say, ‘Look, we understand the reason to give amnesty to people who grew up here, but that’s going to create its own problems. Any package will have to include measures to deal with those problems proactively,’” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports lower immigration levels. “Democrats don’t have much to say in response to that.”
Republicans have accused Democrats of using the fate of the dreamers as a cynical strategy to rally turnout among their liberal base. Last year, the conservative Daily Caller published a leaked memo from the liberal Center for American Progress, co-written by former Clinton adviser Jennifer Palmieri, that implored Democrats to oppose Republican spending bills that did not include provisions to protect dreamers.
“The fight to protect Dreamers is not only a moral imperative, it is also a critical component of the Democratic Party’s future electoral success,” the memo stated.
Tucker Carlson, a co-founder of the Daily Caller, made the case in his nightly Fox News program that the memo showed Democrats were eager to provide citizenship to dreamers in hopes of creating a new group of reliable Democratic voters — a contention that an official for the think tank discounted.
Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, said Republicans were being shortsighted if they feared that supporting citizenship for dreamers would hurt the party politically in the long run.
“People usually give credit to the president who is in office when the bill is passed,” Anderson said, pointing to the comprehensive 1986 immigration bill signed by President Ronald Reagan. “I think if Donald Trump were to embrace the dreamers and rally them, he would get credit and Republicans would get quite a bit of allegiance.”