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House Democrats agree on opposing Trump’s immigration agenda — but little else

Why #AbolishICE won’t be in Democrats’ comprehensive immigration overhaul bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) introduces the “Dream and Promise Act” to give certain groups of immigrants a pathway to legal status.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

As House Democrats released their latest version of the DREAM Act this week, they are already looking ahead to the much more difficult challenge of a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

The Dream and Promise Act, released Tuesday, is a bill designed to give 2.5 million immigrants permanent status and a pathway to citizenship. It’s an ambitious attempt to protect two groups whose legal status has been threatened repeatedly by the Trump administration: young, unauthorized immigrants known as DREAMers and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status. For this reason, it’s a proposal that’s likely dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Opposing Donald Trump is the easy part — the president’s hardline policies have arguably united Democrats. But the fact remains that Democrats still have to do the hard work of figuring out their own vision for an overhaul of immigration and border security policies.

Agreeing on immigration reform has eluded Democrats and Republicans for decades, but Democrats will face intense pressure to tackle it if they take back the White House and Senate in 2020.

Three prominent groups of House Democrats with a huge stake in immigration — the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, and Congressional Progressive Caucus — have all started to separately outline their demands for a comprehensive immigration bill. It could become a major litmus test for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

“We are in the process of putting together a set of principles for what humane immigration reform looks like, and we hope to have those ready in the next couple of months,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Vox. “Given that the 2020 elections are coming up, we want every presidential candidate to say, ‘This is what we mean by comprehensive reform.’”

While slogans like #AbolishICE have captured the energy of the Democratic base, many House Democrats don’t agree with them.

“I think that’s a major distraction, I don’t think that’s a lot of sense,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-CA). “If you abolished ICE tomorrow, that doesn’t change the policies. I don’t care what you call it.”

What Democrats want to see tackled in a comprehensive immigration bill

It’s no coincidence the Dream and Promise Act was introduced before moving on to work on a larger immigration bill; it’s the thing basically all Democrats can agree on.

“We’re sending out to members the different parts of a comprehensive bill that we think should be included, but the timeline obviously is a lot further out,” Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Joaquin Castro (D-TX) told Vox. “First we’re going to get to the DREAM Act and TPS.”

There are a few things that aren’t in Tuesday’s DREAM Act bill Democrats also plan to push for, including reunification of separated families and a pathway for parents of DREAMers to be able to come to the US legally as well. This Obama administration plan was more controversial than DACA, as undocumented parents are technically the ones who crossed the border illegally with their children. States including Texas challenged the Obama administration on the legality of giving undocumented parents amnesty, and the plan was invalidated by a 2016 Supreme Court ruling.

Democrats are also making an economic case to push back on Trump’s policies targeting legal immigrants, in addition to a moral one. As Trump has frequently blamed illegal immigration for costing the US money, Democrats are hammering the case that legal immigration is an economic boon for the country.

Democrats see legal immigration as a key to replenishing the US workforce and keeping the economy healthy as baby boomers retire and the country’s birth rate declines, a 2017 Pew Research Center report found. Democrats often cite studies showing immigrants pay about $11.6 billion per year in taxes, generating more tax revenue for the US government than what they take in government benefits.

“Every day I’ve heard from businesses that the lack of immigrants, the lack of workforce is a major factor, it’s one of those things holding back economic growth in my area,” said Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA), who represents a district including Anaheim, California, and surrounding cities. Correa is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a co-chair of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

Correa sees eye-to-eye with progressive leaders like Jayapal on this issue. The leader of House progressives believes Democrats need to “reclaim the moral imagination of immigration.” Jayapal wants to see the economy at the center of that reimagining, tailored to America’s needs.

“Right now, we have a lot of folks that come in in the tech industry, but actually home care, nursing care, domestic workers, that’s one of the fastest growing industries for us in terms of our needs between now and the next 10 to 15 years,” Jayapal told Vox during a recent interview. “We should be having work visas that match those needs.”

Democrats disagree on the need to #AbolishICE

The thornier issue Democrats need to agree on is border security — they know they don’t want Trump’s border wall, but they disagree on how much border security Democrats should offer up.

Democrats have a well-documented history of supporting physical barriers — just not Trump’s, as Vox’s Tara Golshan wrote in the middle of this year’s government shutdown (which was driven by wall funding).

When Pelosi says Democrats will never vote for “the wall,” she is not saying that Democrats will forever oppose funding physical barriers on the southern border. After all, between 2007 and 2015, Customs and Border Protection spent $2.3 billion building and maintaining 654 miles of physical barriers on the southern border, which Democrats supported, and Democrats have voted for funding as recently as 2018. As one top Democratic aide said, they would support physical barriers again, if it “makes sense.”

“That’s the part we’ve got to figure out,” a Democratic House member told Vox. “Almost nobody wanted a wall, but this has all gotten pushed back a bit because of the government shutdown and wall funding through the emergency declaration. Everybody’s monitoring what happens with that.”

Democrats also can’t agree over the progressive rallying cry to abolish or defund US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, coming from Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), some of the loudest voices in the party.

Even before she was elected, Ocasio-Cortez was the one who gave the call to “Abolish ICE” a prominent megaphone on Twitter. But Democratic leadership and many others in the caucus are not ready to go as far. There is a noticeable split in the caucus over the call to abolish ICE. Many Democrats say the agency needs reform but stop short of calling for its dissolution.

“Look, many people say that, but I think what we need to do is go back and define the role of ICE,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), a co-author of the Dream and Promise Act. “It wasn’t to create a police state.”

Castro, the chair of the CHC, agrees. He and many other Democrats critical of ICE’s aggressive deportations and separation of families say ICE should be restructured so the agency is stripped of its enforcement responsibilities but not abolished entirely.

“I believe the enforcement responsibilities should be taken from ICE and placed somewhere else, they can be left to do the remainder of their mission,” Castro said.

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