Democrats are about to head home for the holidays, and some of the most outspoken advocates for so-called DREAMers are accusing Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer of giving the Latino community coal this year instead of the action they promised on DACA.
The intraparty anger is boiling just under the surface among rank and file Democrats who think their leadership should have done more to fight for the DREAMers—including shutting down the government to get what they want.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) is among a small group of Democrats who vowed early in the spending battle to not support any bill to keep the government’s lights on unless it gave certainty to the 800,000 or so DACA - or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - recipients.
“Any Democrat that expresses a fear that we’re going to get blamed politically for shutting down the government, is helping Republicans in their very devious plan,” Gutierrez told The Daily Beast. “Cause you’re basically saying to them, ‘I feel weak. I don’t feel emboldened. I don’t want to be blamed.’ Plus, they have to be laughing, saying ‘Wow, we’re in the majority and the minority is accepting responsibility for something that we truly must fear.’”
The Democratic Party’s credibility gap with the immigrant community stems in part because former President Barack Obama – who Gutierrez called the Deporter-in-Chief – ramped up deportations in order to win over Republican support on immigration reform. But when House Republicans refused to even take up a bipartisan, Senate-passed reform bill, Obama signed DACA as a downpayment to Latinos, according to Gutierrez.
“[A]t some point it became very clear to him that he needed to be on the side of the immigrant community,” Gutierrez said, before adding that a similar pressure campaign won’t work on Trump. “Because Obama had a conscious, he knew shame and he could make ethical judgements about right and wrong. But if you’re a narcissist like Donald Trump, heartless, nobody can show you another way because you don’t see past the tip of your nose.”
Still, Democratic leaders say DACA remains a priority for them and they maintain they haven’t broken their promise to their base.
“We haven’t given up on getting to DACA this week,” a senior congressional Democratic leadership aide told The Daily Beast on background because negotiations are ongoing. “If the date were to slide it wouldn’t slide in a way to minimize our leverage to get it done.”
The Democratic leadership team also argued that funding for the now lapsed Children’s Health Insurance Program (or CHIP) and the disaster aid package for Puerto Rico, Houston, Florida and many other regions of the nation are also a part of the year end negotiations.
But that’s not good enough for many restive Democrats, like Gutierrez, who argue their party leaders seem to be getting duped and missed a chance to put a line in the sand.
“With Trump you need to say, ‘We’re not coordinating any vote…here with you: This is important to us,’” Gutierrez said. “How do you break him? How do you break Trump? You don’t break Trump, because he doesn’t care.”
The frustration isn’t just among members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), a deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, said the party has to deliver on DACA and that means they have to put up a fight.
“My advice to anyone in leadership in the House of Representatives is, we better do everything imaginable to deliver on DACA or we better be visibly shown to have done every single thing that could be done,” Ellison told The Daily Beast. “Our grass roots base is expecting us to deliver on DACA, and that’s it.”
It’s one thing if DACA is defeated by the GOP, according to Ellison, but the party has to show some scars or at least bruises to maintain the support of the Latino community.
“I think we can explain it to them that every single [Democrat] voted the right way, we fought for it, we argued for it, but there’s just more of them than there are of us, but they will not understand a non-fight. They will not,” Ellison continued. “Because it’s their lives, their families, their people being dragged and carted off because of this damn policy. I feel so strongly about this. We cannot fail on this.”
Many Democrats now fear their party leaders have lost leverage by being open to punting the DACA debate into 2018, because without the threat of a government shutdown hanging over the GOP, they’ll feel more emboldened to meet the president’s demands for a border wall and other enforcement measures in the negotiations.
“We’re going to have to look at securing the borders; no two ways about it,” Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) told The Daily Beast. “We need to secure our borders and there’s some place a wall makes a lot of sense, there are other places a fence makes a lot of sense.”
And the far right wing of the GOP are also laying out their demands, and for many members of the conservative Freedom Caucus that means drawing a hard line in the sand.
“We believe that there should be no blanket amnesty or pathway to citizenship,” Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) told The Daily Beast. “I personally want to see it as just where in return for border security measures and other immigration measures, such as ending the diversity lottery and chain migration, where we allow the current DACA recipients continue to get temporary work permits.”
The Senate may represent Democrats’ last fortress on the issue, because Republicans there remain more moderate on immigration issues than their House counterparts. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), the number two Senate Democrat, have been negotiating a potential fix for DACA. Graham maintained they’ve been hampered, because the president still needs to weigh in and lay out his vision.
“The president needs to tell us what border security looks like, and I think it will be a plan that will have a wall component; I don’t think anybody is saying we need a 2,200 mile wall,” Graham told The Daily Beast. “The key to border security is him, and we need to know what in his mind meets the test of good border security.”
But by seeming to push the DACA fight into the New Year, many rank and file Democrats fear their party leaders are risking making them look indifferent on the issue.
“DACA has to be, and the DREAM Act has to be, for our party a unifying point and not one in which doesn’t have the priority or the status it should have,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) told The Daily Beast. “Experience tells me that when we get to issues of immigration there’s a tendency to push those to the back because of the political volatility of the issue.”
Grijalva and the other critics don’t question that fixing DACA remains a priority for Schumer and Pelosi, but they’re letting them know that they think they missed an opportunity and they’ve vowed to continue to be a thorn in their sides until the party delivers on their promises.
“I think she’s still committed,” Grijalva said. “But I’m not ready to wave the white flag and say ‘Let’s wait and see what happens,’ I think that part of the pressure has to be constant or this thing will fade.”