In tweets and speeches, President Trump is attacking Democrats over the collapse of immigration talks in Congress, a preemptive bid to shift blame for the high-profile failure in a midterm election year.
“We’re ready, willing and able,” Trump declared in a speech to conservative Latino business leaders Wednesday. Democrats, he said, “are nowhere to be found.” In a tweet a day earlier, Trump said his political rivals were “running for the hills” instead of addressing the problem.
Democrats expressed confidence, though, that they can win the political blame game against a president who has championed an anti-immigration agenda. It was Trump who ended the Obama-era program that allowed young, undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” to stay in the country, and it was his White House that actively undermined bipartisan proposals to protect them from deportation.
But immigration politics have proved treacherous for both parties as successive administrations have tried and failed to pass meaningful immigration reform over the past two decades. Though advocates said they are not worried that immigrant communities would support Republican candidates in November, they acknowledged there is mounting frustration with Democrats and a growing feeling that no one in Washington has their interests at heart.
“The whole system is guilty,” said Maria Duarte, 23, a DACA recipient who immigrated to Georgia with her family from Mexico when she was 5 years old. Duarte was among two dozen undocumented immigrants who protested Monday outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, temporarily blocking the entrance.
“Republicans stabbed us in the heart by continually and openly harboring hatred and hateful rhetoric,” Duarte said. “Democrats express a different rhetoric, but at the end of the day, they stab us in the back. Our community has been attacked on both ends, and it needs to be acknowledged that we do not feel Democrats are on our side. They could be doing more.”
Trump’s efforts to goad Democrats come as lawmakers have largely moved on from immigration after several proposals failed in the Senate last month. Though Trump had set a deadline of March 5 before the bulk of the 690,000 work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program began to expire, federal courts have intervened to temporarily keep the program alive.
While that reprieve has provided lawmakers more time to strike a deal, it also has removed the pressure on them to act and attention on Capitol Hill has shifted to other issues, such as gun control and trade. Thousands of immigrant rights advocates demonstrated in Washington on what would have been the DACA expiration deadline Monday.
Though critics accuse the president of purposely scuttling a deal, Trump also faces risks with his conservative base, given that he has yet to deliver on his vow to build a wall on the southwest border with Mexico. Democrats had signaled a willingness to support up to $25 billion for the project in exchange for allowing dreamers to pursue citizenship, but the White House also demanded deep cuts to legal immigration levels, which Democrats and some moderate Republicans strongly opposed.
Speaking to the Latino Coalition Legislative Summit on Wednesday, Trump defended his negotiating position, charging that Senate Democrats “filibustered our plan because they don’t care about the immigration system or reform, and they don’t want to solve the problem. They would rather use it to get elected.”
In fact, only 39 of the Senate’s 51 Republicans — and no Democrats — voted to support a proposal from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that was modeled after the White House’s immigration framework. That bill got the fewest total votes of support among the four proposals that were defeated in the Senate last month.
“We offered a bipartisan approach that was beyond fair,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who along with colleague Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) had presented Trump with a proposal that the president rejected.
Democrats point to polls that show broad public support for allowing dreamers to remain in the country and others that found a majority of the public blames Republicans and Trump for the failure of the DACA talks and a three-day government shutdown in January that resulted from the impasse on immigration.
“@realDonaldTrump has spent months blocking effort to find a DACA fix,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wrote in a tweet Tuesday. “It’s time for him to stop tweeting & come back to the table to discuss a permanent solution for America’s patriotic DREAMers. We’ve been waiting.”
More than 70 percent of Latino and Asian American voters supported Obama’s 2012 reelection over Republican Mitt Romney, who had advocated a policy of “self-deportation” among undocumented immigrants. But advocacy groups grew increasingly frustrated with Obama after the failure in 2013-14 of a comprehensive immigration bill in Congress, with some advocates calling him the “deporter-in-chief.”
In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton failed to match Obama’s margins among Latinos, winning 67 percent of that vote. Latino turnout nationally dipped slightly below the 2012 levels and plummeted 34 percent in Michigan, which Trump won by just 10,000 votes.
Despite the Democrats’ confidence they can avoid any political blame from the DACA impasse, they haven’t been immune to the wrath of their energized base, which has been frustrated that Democrats haven’t acted more aggressively on immigration.
Activists have repeatedly pushed Democratic lawmakers to hold must-pass spending bills hostage unless Congress also passes permanent protections for the “dreamers.” Most Democrats embraced this strategy earlier in the year, prompting a brief government shutdown in January. It ended after three days when Senate Democrats agreed to reopen federal agencies in exchange for more funding for domestic programs — but no immigration deal.
“This was misplayed from a strategic perspective,” said one immigration advocacy leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer frank criticism of colleagues. “Democrats traded away the dreamers for more money . . . Advocates are not dumb.”
Democratic lawmakers understand the frustration, but they remain confident voters will understand “who’s supporting them and who isn’t,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.). The Justice Department late Tuesday announced a federal lawsuit against California’s status as a “sanctuary state” for undocumented immigrants, offering Democrats another leverage point in the political fight.
“Many communities feel scapegoated by the president,” said Rep Joaquin Castro (D-Texas). “People see that and in November, they’ll respond to it.”
But Trump wasn’t willing to cede ground on Wednesday.
“This is our moment,” the president told the Latino business leaders. “Go get DACA. Go push those Democrats.”