Not a single immigration bill has been able to pass the Republican-controlled Congress this year — even the ones aimed at garnering only Republican votes. Immigration activists have given up hope on seeing any meaningful action this year.
The latest effort from House Republicans on Wednesday to pass a “compromise” immigration bill failed miserably, even with the past few weeks dominated by the news of immigrant families being separated at the border by the Trump administration and a US Supreme Court decision upholding Trump’s travel ban.
Activists now say the best hope they have is to help turn out Latino votes to elect Democrats in 2018. If a blue wave sweeps the House (or even the Senate), activists then plan to turn up the pressure on Democratic leaders to address immigration as one of their first legislative priorities in 2019.
“If we don’t flip the House and we don’t flip the Senate, we’re never going to be able to provide the kind of relief and protection for immigrants that’s so desperately needed,” said Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change.
The question is if congressional Democrats will be as eager to take up an immigration bill should they reclaim a chamber of Congress in 2018.
Immigration activists have changed their tactics as Trump has gotten more extreme
Last winter, activists were on the front lines arguing for Congress to act and urging Democrats to vote against any massive spending bill that did not contain a DACA fix.
Now the conversation has changed as Trump’s immigration policies have gotten more far extreme. As the Trump administration implemented its “zero tolerance” prosecution policy this spring, separating all families crossing the border in the process, activists have had to change their tactics.
“There’s this natural reaction to want to do something, but the reality is, we don’t control Congress,” said Angel Padilla, policy director at Indivisible, a national activist group. “The only bill that could get through Congress would have provisions that we would be unable to accept.”
Immigration activists who pressured Congress to come up with a permanent fix to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and giving young, unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers a pathway to citizenship are now fighting to oppose every immigration bill that’s coming up in a Republican-led Congress.
Activists have resigned themselves to the difficult reality that they’ll have to play defense on most immigration bills until 2019 at least. This has seemed like an impossible choice for some activist groups, who plan to oppose some of the narrow Republican bills on family separation if the end result means jailing entire families in government detention centers — perhaps indefinitely.
Immigrants’ best hope lies with Democrats. But will they do anything if they win in 2018?
Even as immigration is becoming a key issue for voters in 2018, Democrats have been clear their first priority will be jobs and advancing legislation to put people back to work. Even with low unemployment numbers, Democrats have been hammering home points about raising wages and providing job training for more people. House and Senate Democrats unveiled a platform called A Better Deal, which focuses largely on increasing the minimum wage, putting a dent in rising income inequality, and solving the crisis of unaffordable housing.
A focus on jobs could mean that immigration legislation gets pushed to the side again, even if Democrats are able to retake the House in 2018. Immigration activists said they’ll be furious if they get pushed to the side again.
“I’m disgusted and disappointed and sick of it, because we’ve been hearing that since the days of Obama,” said Matos. “It’s always some other priority, and then we’ll get to you eventually. Well, guess what, it’s 2018 and part of the reason we’re in the predicament we’re in is because they never get to us.”
Luis Gutierrez, a Congress member from Chicago who has been instrumental in fighting for immigration legislation for years, says he’s more optimistic. Even though Gutierrez is retiring after this year, he believes his party has truly evolved on the issue.
“When 194 Democrats sign onto the discharge petition or sign onto a DREAM Act — we’re unanimous in our support for immigration reform,” Gutierrez said. “The level of commitment to it ... look, it took us a while. But they were there.”
As for whether he’s heard commitments from current Democratic leadership to take up immigration if Democrats retake the House in 2018 and Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer remain at the helm, Gutierrez said momentum and pressure will have to come from Democratic voters themselves.
“Here’s what I understand: I understand what the base of the Democratic party thinks,” he said.