The 800,000 young immigrants made vulnerable to deportation by President Donald Trump’s administration didn’t get any relief from Congress last week.
On Friday, the House approved a bipartisan bargain to raise the debt ceiling, fund the government, and send emergency funding for Hurricane Harvey victims after Democrats struck a deal with Trump. Congress has not passed any protections for the recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that President Donald Trump decided to sunset.
Now, immigration activists and their allies on the Hill are seeking to find some leverage point to force Congress to either vote on the DREAM Act (or any of the other possible legislative vehicles for protecting DACA beneficiaries).
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who is pushing the DREAM Act in the Senate, said Thursday he believes he has about 55 of the 60 votes needed to pass the bill.
But others worry that may not come soon enough. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who has been pushing for sooner action on DACA, had been openly furious with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for not tying the DACA fight to the emergency measures.
He said Friday afternoon that he was cautiously optimistic Democrats would soon find a means of forcing the issue onto the legislative calendar.
“At the end you have to say, ‘This line,’ you should not cross,” Gutierrez said, drawing an imaginary line with his right foot in front of reporters. “I think we’ll get there.”
Activists, progressive Democrats want firmer line on DACA
Though they came up short, some activists tried to get the DREAM Act across the finish line last week. Gutierrez, the activist group Indivisible, and United We Dream — the biggest advocacy organization on the Hill for the DREAMers — all urged Democrats to reject the Trump-Pelosi-Schumer deal because it did not address DACA.
But others on the left, crucially, did not fight with them to demand a more immediate vote on the bill. Despite rumors late Wednesday night that members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus were concerned the deal didn’t protect DACA, virtually none spoke out publicly. That killed any left-wing momentum against using the budget agreement as a leverage point.
This dynamic may now start to shift that Congress has averted the immediate crisis, which included a particularly catastrophic hurricane.
Indeed, more members are already publicly demanding Democrats take a firmer line. Gutierrez spent all week on a lone crusade among House Democrats against the bill from the left. But at a press conference on the Hill on Friday, he was joined by Reps. Lou Correa (D-CA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) — who had been rumored to be angered, but didn’t publicly attack Pelosi over it the way Gutierrez did.
“I’m placing my trust in our leadership that unless this gets done, other things won’t get done. This is fair, and necessary, and we’ve reached the breaking point,” Grijalva said at a press conference, a row of DREAMers in bright orange shirts standing behind him. “Time’s up ... We get a clean bill, or the government shuts down. It is not a harsh request.”
Correa added: “This is the message I send to my colleagues: It has to be done in 30 days. Let’s stop playing games.”
Activists look for leverage points to force DREAM Act vote
Still unclear is exactly how activists and Hill Democrats will succeed in forcing a congressional vote on the DREAM Act.
One long-shot approach, being spearheaded by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, is to try to get enough signatures on a “discharge petition” — if 218 members sign it, then House Speaker Paul Ryan would be forced to call a vote on the DREAM Act. (Ryan has ruled out bringing up a “clean” vote on the DREAM Act himself.)
Another option is to try attaching — or refusing to support — other measures that might require Democratic votes. The National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the military, has to be reauthorized. The Child Health Insurance Program is another possible point at which Democrats could exercise their leverage, as is a flood insurance bill. The position of Indivisible and the activist group MoveOn.org is that Democrats should attach the DREAM Act to every piece of legislation. Should these measures fail to yield legislation that protects DREAMers, then activists would again demand Democrats use their leverage on the debt ceiling or the government shutdown.
“This was a deal with a white supremacist that let the DREAMers down,” said Ezra Levin of Indivisible. “This is on Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — if they fail to get the DREAM Act done, this is on them.”
Still, Durbin, one of the top-ranking Democrats, told the podcast Pod Save America on Thursday that Schumer and Pelosi had gotten the best deal they could from Trump, and rejected the idea of vowing to shut down the government without protections for DREAMers.
“I get their anxiety and I get their emotion, but let’s think about this coolly. How will we get to the finish line with 60+ votes in the Senate?” Durbin asked.
Another congressional Democrat, speaking to reporters on background on Friday, thought that the activists’ strategy risked taking too hard a line — ruling out the possibility of publicly tying government funding to the DREAMers.
"It's important for Republicans to feel some ownership over this," the senator said. "If Democrats immediately drew lines in the sand, that would take the heat off Republicans to find a solution."
Gutierrez, however, is adamant: Not even a debt ceiling that could trigger global economic catastrophe should be taken off the table, should Congress fail not just this week but over the next few months to protect DACA recipients.
“They came after the Muslims, and the government continued to operate. They came after the [transgender people], and the government continued to operate. Now they’re coming after the DREAMers — and we’re saying, ‘You’re not going to simply cross this line,’” Gutierrez said.
“We all have Christmas,” Gutierrez added, “or nobody has Christmas.”