Democrats in Congress, dismayed but unsurprised by a White House decision to unwind legal status for 800,000 immigrants who arrived in America as children, are approaching it as a political opportunity — a chance for the minority party to get a bill it wants, not one favored by most Republicans.
On Tuesday, as Republican leaders said they'd back permanent status for some immigrants, Democrats pitched the 16-year-old Dream Act as the only vehicle that could pass. Activists, who spent Tuesday mobilizing against the White House's decision, were just as adamant that the bill be passed without adding more immigration restrictions to secure Republican votes.
"The same way we came out strong against the Muslim ban, or stopping the end of funding for Planned Parenthood, or that we would stand up for the transgender community, we have to make it clear and unequivocal that there is no peace going forward if you're going to allow the devastation of the lives of 800,000 people," said Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.).
Senior Democratic aides said that two current immigration-related bills would be strongly opposed by Democrats — and some Republicans. First, Democrats will oppose any attempt to spend federal dollars on the construction of a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. They also oppose the RAISE Act, a bill by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and David Perdue (R-Ga.) that would restrict legal immigration into the United States.
Trump voiced support for the RAISE Act on Tuesday. The plan bears the hallmarks of bills that Attorney General Jeff Sessions introduced when he was an Alabama senator.
But Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who held a news conference with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to demand quick passage of their Dream Act, said that RAISE was a non-starter.
"Cutting down the total number of legal immigrants becomes problematic on two or three fronts," said Durbin. "Lindsey opposes it. So, [Cotton] has some issues with his own caucus."
Graham was just as critical of the proposed funding for a border wall. "If that's what you mean by border security, you're not going to get the votes," he said.
Democratic leaders on Wednesday are set to meet with Trump face-to-face for the first time since January and are likely to discuss several issues, including his DACA decisions, aides said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has requested meetings with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to discuss the matter. Aides said that, for now, there's no need for such a meeting, since it's likely to be a main subject of conversation on Wednesday.
Despite Democratic calls to hold a "clean" up-or-down vote on legislation protecting "dreamers," senior GOP aides said that is not likely to happen given the strong opposition to doing so among conservative lawmakers. Instead, leaders are expected to launch talks in the coming days to pair a bipartisan plan to protect dreamers with other legislation that tackles border security or other immigration concerns, said the aides, who were not authorized to speak publicly about ongoing talks.
What might be negotiated to protect DACA recipients was unclear Tuesday afternoon. Several aides cautioned that the details can't be sorted out until GOP leaders signal how they plan to pass a short-term spending plan and raise the debt limit. Republicans, who were almost universally critical of President Obama for introducing DACA, had no clear proposal of their own, and several ideas, like Cotton's, were already taking friendly fire.
"What's out there right now doesn't pass the laugh test," said Clarissa Martinez, deputy vice president of UnidosUS, the civil rights group formerly known as NCLR. For Republicans to muddle the Dream Act with wall funding or immigration cutbacks would be, she said, "like someone saying they're going to shoot you but want you to hold the gun."
Talks are likely to focus on four bills that would provide relief to DACA recipients or more broadly to most children of undocumented immigrants.
The Bridge Act enjoys significant bipartisan support in both chambers. Sponsored by Sens. Graham and Durbin as well as Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Gutierrez, it would benefit anyone under the age of 36 who has been in the U.S. since 2007 and includes strict educational or military service requirements. The Dream Act, sponsored by the same lawmakers plus several other Democrats, is a slightly more generous version.
Meanwhile, the Recognizing America's Children Act, introduced by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), has no Democratic sponsors. It applies a stricter standard to people who entered the U.S. before 16 and are either in school or have valid work authorization, but it would not apply to people already undergoing removal or deportation proceedings.
Finally, the Hope Act, sponsored by Gutiérrez and more than 130 other House Democrats, would essentially provide blanket protections to dreamers regardless of their education or work status or whether they're a DACA recipient. Aides and activists say it's the proposal least likely to pass despite broad Democratic support.
But those activists have largely won Democrats — and most voters — over toward a narrow pro-DREAM position. In a Morning Consult poll conducted in April, when it seemed that the White House might leave DACA untouched, 78 percent of registered voters — and 72 percent of Republicans — said they favored some form of legal status for childhood arrivals.
The Republicans' main ideas for Dream Act add-ons are less popular. In an August poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, 44 percent of voters favored the idea of halving legal immigration. In May, the last time the pollster asked the question, 33 percent of voters favored the construction of a border wall with Mexico — down from 42 percent last year.
"The idea that the Stephen Miller crowd has — that you can cut immigration by 50 percent, ban sanctuary cities, build the wall — as a deal for dreamers, is ridiculous," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice. "The idea that we have to go along with border security and a border wall is ridiculous, too. The American people have litigated this. They don't want to pay for a border wall."
Activists roundly rejected the idea that dreamers, out of desperation, would back more restrictive proposals. On a Monday call with reporters, joined by Sharry, United We Dream executive director Cristina Jimenez said that Congress needed to pass the Dream Act "without any racist gimmicks," like money for a border wall or punishment for sanctuary cities, characterizing it as "playing with the lives of 800,000 people."
"There is no way in hell we'll allow this Congress or this president to use the Dream Act as a vehicle for white supremacist demands," said Kamau Chege, an undocumented immigrant and organizer with the progressive group #AllOfUs, which has organized primary challenges against "corporate" Democrats. "We demand stand-alone legislation that protects immigrant youth, and does not hurt anyone else."
The Democrats' confidence was on display in deep red states, too. Later this week, the president is traveling to North Dakota, a state he won by 36 points, where Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) is up for reelection in 14 months. But in a statement on Facebook, Heitkamp said that she favored a bipartisan DACA fix no stricter than the comprehensive immigration bills she'd backed in the past.
"Ending the DACA program is simply cruel," said Heitkamp. "These children and individuals just want to be part of the only country most of them know. And we should want that for them as well."