Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate promised in September to hold the line on help for some unauthorized immigrants, refusing to vote on a December end-of-year spending bill unless it contained the bipartisan DREAM Act.
Now the line in the Senate appears to be breaking.
A number of red-state Senate Democrats facing re-election next year are not willing to shut down the government to force Republicans’ hands on an immigration deal by the end of the year. Democratic Senate leaders, including Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), say they don’t know if they have the votes to pressure Republicans to make a deal in the next week.
“I don’t know the answer to that, I haven’t seen any count or whip count on this at all,” Durbin told Vox on Tuesday. “It’s still early in the process. We’ve not even seen McConnell’s bill. We don’t know what he’s going to propose.”
The DREAM Act is a bipartisan piece of legislation that was originally introduced in 2001. But every time it has come up in the Senate, it has either been delayed or hasn’t garnered enough votes. In 2012, President Obama used his executive authority to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (otherwise known as DACA).
DACA has given about 800,000 young, unauthorized immigrants temporary protection and the ability to work in the United States. That is, until President Donald Trump announced he would end the program by March 2018, leaving Congress to come up with a permanent fix.
Now, the race is on to pass a bill that offers DREAMers with permanent protections. But as Vox’s Dara Lind wrote, DACA protections exist for two years, so some people are already losing their protected status. The clock is ticking for DACA recipients — and the sooner Congress fixes the problem, the better it is for DREAMers.
The lack of unity among Senate Democrats is setting off a larger rift in the Democratic party around immigration. Many progressives believe Democratic leadership didn’t use their leverage in September when they negotiated a spending deal with the White House that included hurricane disaster relief but no DREAM Act.
Now, the fight is shifting to the short-term spending bills to keep the government running.
“The House is solid, we are not voting on any spending deal that doesn’t address a DACA fix,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM).
But as the days go with no deal, House members, DREAMers, and immigration activists are getting frustrated with the lack of action in the Senate, and the news that some Republicans want to vote on a bill in mid-January.
“I am disappointed, to say the least,” said Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-CA). “If we send everybody home for the holidays without sending the message that this is something we’re willing to fight for and stand for, I’m concerned what kind of a message that’s going to send to DREAMers. We have been told over and over again, especially in September, that December would be our time.”
A Democratic dilemma
Unlike the biggest votes in the Senate so far on tax reform and health care, Democrats actually have political leverage on an end-of-year spending bill, which many people see as the vehicle to get an immigration deal done.
There’s a long list of demands to attach to a spending bill, with the DREAM Act being one of the biggest priorities. If Republicans hold out, Democrats could theoretically threaten a government shutdown to try to force a vote.
Eight Democratic senators voted against the last short-term spending bill when it came up for a vote on Dec. 7 because it did not include the DREAM Act, and they have vowed to oppose the next spending bill, which will come up on Friday.
At a press conference near the Capitol Tuesday, Durbin and fellow Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) pledged to stay and fight for an immigration deal.
“Very soon, the Senate is going to have to pass a long-term spending bill to keep the government working,” Gillibrand told a crowd of activists. “If Republicans refuse to do the right thing and protect DREAMers in the upcoming long-term spending bill, then they are going to cause the government to shut down, because I am not going to vote for any long-term spending bill that doesn’t protect our DREAMers, period.”
But other Democratic senators are much more uneasy about the possibility of a shutdown.
“I will exercise every bit of leverage I can for the Dream Act, but if there is a vote that would lead to a shutdown, that’s where I draw the line,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) told the Washington Post recently. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) also told the Post that while she believed DACA must be fixed, she’s not feeling the urgency to get it done by the end of the year.
“We’ve got to get it done, but I’m not drawing a line in the sand that it has to be this week versus two weeks from now,” McCaskill said.
Interviewed by Vox a couple weeks ago, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), the senior senator from a state filled with immigrants and Democrats, said she would do everything she could to avoid a shutdown.
“Anyone that was here before certainly would never vote for it [the shutdown] again. It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do,” Feinstein said.
For their part, many DREAMers and activists are pinning the splintering of Senate Democrats on Senate leadership, including Durbin and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). They feel leaders are abandoning their original promises, even as more DACA recipients lose their protected status every day.
“We expect that Democrats don’t control the agenda, but Democrats do have some levers to use and they’re not using them right now for the things they should be,” said Angel Padilla, policy director for Indivisible, a national activist group that has been very vocal on immigration. “I hope they’re serious about [Dec.] 22 because everyone is looking at Democrats right now with the 22nd.”
On Tuesday, Durbin said he has been having conversations with Senate leadership “night and day every day.”
“I can tell you they are personally committed as much as I am to the passage of this DACA protection,” he said. “Schumer called me this morning, talking about strategy and tactics, and what’s the best way to move this forward. He’s totally personally committed, and he’s trying to find the best avenue to approach this.”
Democrats certainly have an electoral reason to try to get a deal done; immigrants make up a large part of their base, and could retaliate at the polls if they feel senators aren’t fighting for them.
When asked how activist groups and immigrants would respond if Democrats didn’t hold the line by the end of the year, Padilla had one word.
“Anger,” he said. “We expect this from Republicans, but not Democrats.”
The details of an immigration deal are still murky
It looks like a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program may be coming in January, which is not what Democratic leadership initially promised DREAMers.
A bipartisan group of senators has been meeting with White House officials for the past few weeks to try to hammer out a deal, Politico reported yesterday. But as of now, there are few details about what that deal might look like, or even policy changes to border security Trump’s White House wants in exchange for a DACA deal. Senators are expecting the White House to send its border security wish list in the coming days.
“We couldn’t finish this product, this bill, until we knew where the administration was,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told Politico. Flake said he expects a vote on an immigration bill to come in January, but there is no firm timeline on that. Furthermore, the Trump White House is nothing if not unpredictable on immigration issues.
Durbin said Democrats are willing to work with the White House on a border security agreement in exchange for getting the DREAM Act passed.
“Border security needs to be included, I think that needs to be part of it,” he told Vox. “I think we’ve said there are some elements of border security we can support, if we have a good DREAM Act as a basis.”
Correction: Angel Padilla is the policy director for Indivisible. His first name was incorrect in a previous version of this story.