Democratic leaders are facing fresh trouble with their left flank after cutting their latest deal with President Donald Trump to protect Dreamers.
Hispanic lawmakers were blindsided by the Wednesday night announcement from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that they’d support legislation to help the nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants in exchange for an unspecified boost in border security.
And immigration activists were frustrated to see Democrats claim victory only days after calling for a stand-alone vote on a path to citizenship for Dreamers.
The concerns are particularly acute in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where some members worry Democratic leaders — despite getting Trump to drop demands for a border wall in the talks — have already given away too much in the nascent negotiations and say their members are being shut out of key talks.
“I remember when issues of immigration were first filtered through, checked in with us. And I don’t see that,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), one of the most outspoken members of the caucus. “There is a slippery slope here that I see beginning to appear.”
Others were blunter.
“This is bullshit,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas). “If what we’re going to do is address DACA, we ought to do that on its own and we ought to address border security on its own.”
Pelosi sought to assuage her caucus’ concerns Thursday morning, telling House Democratic whips that despite “some misunderstandings in the press about a deal, we made a deal to make a deal. We made a deal to go forward.”
“So let us embrace our success instead of tinkling all over it, as we have a tendency to do all over ourselves,” Pelosi added, according to a source in the room. “Because this — I’m just being very honest with you, OK? Because we don’t have the majority.”
One senior Democratic aide sounded a similar note: “If we have an opportunity to pass the DREAM Act from the minority, it’s worth exploring every possibility to get that done.”
Pelosi and Schumer also have stepped up efforts to soothe immigrant-rights groups, who were livid that party leaders agreed to last week’s fiscal deal without also helping their cause.
That effort continued on Wednesday and Thursday, as leadership aides met with advocacy groups to provide reassurances that Democrats would insist on a path for citizenship for the Dreamers — legislation known as the DREAM Act.
“Everyone is eager to see details of what a deal will look like, but there was a great deal of support for moving forward,” one Senate Democratic aide said. “There wasn’t a lot of forward motion until last night, and the coalition recognizes that we’re now beginning to make some progress.”
An immigration advocate who participated in one of the leadership meetings, however, said that it offered little context on the endgame of Democratic leaders’ talks with Trump. Of particular concern, this advocate said, was the reference to a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program when Schumer and Pelosi announced the agreement Wednesday night.
Immigration groups want to see more than just a fix for the nearly 700,000 individuals affected by DACA; they want a path to citizenship for more than 1 million that would be provided under the DREAM Act.
Schumer, Pelosi, and Trump specifically agreed to work on a path to citizenship on Wednesday night, a source familiar with the talks said. The Democratic leaders referred to DACA and not DREAM in their subsequent statement to improve prospects for a final deal with Trump, who shies away from the latter term and prefers the former.
But Republican leaders who control the congressional agenda and have to buy into the early pact Trump reached with Pelosi and Schumer are likely to insist on the strongest possible border security expansion. And trading the DREAM Act for provisions that immigrant-rights groups oppose as too draconian could split the Democratic coalition.
CHC members, in particular, say they feel intense pressure to deliver a solution for their community before the March deadline.
Any legislation that would lead to increased raids or immigration detention beds “are the kind of border security measures I wouldn’t want to support,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told POLITICO.
“We can look at some other kinds of things, but we don’t need more beds.” Hirono said, adding that she expects anything Democratic leaders agree to on border security to be “reasonable.”
But some activists aren’t convinced yet.
“Details matter,” said Angel Padilla, policy director of the liberal group Indivisible. “We don’t want to see Dreamers being used as bargaining chips, and that’s kind of what this is.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) urged immigration groups to keep “making it very clear how upset they would be — frustrated, disappointed, angry” if Dreamers don’t get help “without poison pills.” Merkley said he isn’t concerned about a bad deal with the White House, “but then, nothing has been nailed down in language.”
One CHC leader, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), said that Hispanic lawmakers are prepared to accept some level of border security add-ons to a DREAM Act package, so long as the terms aren’t dictated by leadership after the fact.
“[W]e have to be part of the discussion,” Gallego said. “We will not be told what the deal is.”
Gallego was pushing other members of the CHC to support a statement last week criticizing Pelosi and Schumer for agreeing to a debt limit deal with Trump without securing a commitment for Dreamers. The caucus eventually decided against the idea at the behest of Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), chairman of House Democrats’ campaign arm and a Pelosi ally, according to multiple sources.
But the latest episode just adds to the CHC’s mounting frustration with leaders.
“Paul Ryan said ‘need border security’ and the Democrats parroted him yesterday. Why are we using the same language that Paul Ryan is?” Gutiérrez said. “So what’s going to be next?”
For his part, Gutiérrez has upset some within Trump’s circle with his fiery denunciation of White House chief of staff John Kelly, calling him “a disgrace to the uniform he used to wear” for allowing Trump to yank DACA protections.
Multiple CHC members are irked over the way they found out about the agreement. Many members were at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s annual gala Wednesday night — the first time in 40 years the group hasn’t invited the sitting president — when the news broke.
Dozens of members of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and the CHC were on stage as Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the CHC Institute, was delivering a speech about why the group decided to snub Trump.
Then their phones started buzzing with news alerts about Trump and Democratic leaders agreeing to a deal on Dreamers and border security.
“There is no deal without the CHC being involved in negotiations,” said Gallego, adding that he found out about the agreement on Twitter.
Even CHC Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) was in the dark, calling Pelosi’s office after seeing a breaking news alert during the gala, according to multiple members and staffers.
Since then the CHC has held two emergency meetings — one around midnight after the gala and another after votes Thursday — but the caucus remains divided on what to do next.
Some members want to draw up a list of 10 or so border security provisions the caucus won’t accept as part of any bipartisan deal. But other members are hesitant, saying they shouldn’t put all their cards on the table this early in negotiations.
Leadership sources insist they are in lock-step with the Hispanic Caucus, noting Lujan Grisham is in frequent contact with Pelosi. The CHC chief also attended an immigration meeting with Ryan on Wednesday where the outline of the agreement reached with Trump that night was discussed.
Amid the furor, all parties agree that the caucus should play more of a role in the talks going forward.
“I think if the president really wants to get this done, CHC should be in the room as well,” said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), former CHC chair and now vice chairwoman of the Democratic caucus. “It’s not just leadership.”