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Why Democrats aren’t rushing to change immigration laws

They don’t agree with Trump and public sentiment doesn’t provide a mandate toward a solution

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., flanked from left by Assistant Democratic Leader Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Cheri Bustos, D- Ill., and Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark, D-Mass., speaks to the press during the House Democrats' 2019 Issues Conference at the Landsdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, Va. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., flanked from left by Assistant Democratic Leader Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Cheri Bustos, D- Ill., and Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark, D-Mass., speaks to the press during the House Democrats' 2019 Issues Conference at the Landsdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, Va. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats are treading carefully on immigration as they attempt to show they can lead on the divisive issue heading into the 2020 elections.

President Donald Trump, who won election in 2016 on a campaign to crack down on immigration and what he often refers to as “open borders,” is planning to repeat the strategy heading into 2020. In recent weeks, he’s launched near daily attacks on Democrats for their refusal to change immigration laws — an accusation that, as with many things Trump says, is not entirely true.

House Democrats don’t want to let Trump bait them into an immigration fight while they’re focused on delivering on the economic agenda they believe propelled them into the majority. But they also don’t want to ignore the humanitarian crisis at the border where an increasing number of migrants, many asylum seekers from Central America, have been trying to enter the United States.

In interviews over the past several weeks about what their caucus is doing to respond to the influx of migrants, most House Democrats have pointed to two things: money they’ve appropriated to help with humanitarian needs at the border, and oversight they’re conducting to ensure the Trump administration follows the law in processing and detaining immigrants.

Democratic leaders chimed in at their annual retreat last week with renewed calls for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. That proposal is both inevitable to some and inconceivable to others, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, expressing optimism about bridging that gap.

“It’s complicated, but it isn’t hard to do if you have good intentions,” the California Democrat said. “And I’m not giving up on the president on this.”

Flashback: Trump announces national emergency on border, despite likely legal challenge

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Different goals

While few Democrats have mentioned specific legislative remedies outside of an ambitious overhaul, it’s not necessarily reflective of an unwillingness to change immigration laws as Trump asserts.

The existing laws, especially on asylum, are generally ones Democrats believe work. The administration’s policies have exacerbated the situation at the border, and the statutory changes Trump is seeking would only do further damage, they argue.

“I think we are responding to what they’re doing. And the laws are on the book. If what they’re doing is creating this problem, then that’s a challenge,” House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson  said.

Trump wants to stem the migration trend and send people back to their home countries, while deterring others from seeking asylum in the U.S.  — goals Democrats do not share. The president’s intentions were best captured in a remark he made while visiting the border earlier this month.

“The system is full. Can’t take anymore. Sorry, folks. Can’t take anymore,” he said. He then noted his belief, without citing any evidence, that some asylum seekers are gang members pretending to be afraid for their lives, saying, “It’s a scam.  It’s a hoax.”

Democrats have been outspoken against Trump’s immigration rhetoric and are conducting oversight of policies his administration has tried to implement that they say would violate the law. Leaders have started calling for “order at the border,” a slogan they hope will draw a distinction between their approach and Trump’s.


At the start of the year, much of the Democrats’ oversight efforts were focused on the administration’s zero tolerance policy that separated children from their parents at the border. They held several hearings on the decision to pursue the policy and the still-not-complete attempts to reunify families after the practice ended last summer.

New controversies emerged in recent weeks as Trump threatened to close the border and cut off aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the countries of origin for most migrants arriving at the border.

Democrats had prepared a nonbinding resolution to object to both moves and considered bringing it up for a vote until Trump backed off the border closure threat.

They may still prepare a legislative response to the aid threat, most likely using language in the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations measures to prevent the administration from halting appropriated funds from reaching those countries without congressional approval.

Another oversight matter is brewing over Trump’s recent declaration that he intends to have undocumented immigrants whose cases have not been processed within the legal detention window released into sanctuary cities as a way to pressure Democrats.

Thompson, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings wrote a letter Tuesday to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan seeking information about the proposal.

“Not only does the administration lack the legal authority to transfer detainees in this manner, it is shocking that the President and senior Administration officials are even considering manipulating release decisions for purely political reasons,” the three chairmen wrote.

Appropriations over authorizing legislation

Much of the Democrats’ efforts can be channeled into action through the appropriations process — a more likely avenue to changing immigration policy than writing authorizing legislation.

The House majority will have to reach agreement with Senate Republicans and Trump on how much money to appropriate for border security and immigrant processing needs. Democrats can also seek  language preventing money from being spent on policies or practices they oppose.

A delayed fiscal 2019 spending package Trump signed in February, for example, limited the amount of funding provided for a physical border barrier while securing funding for additional detention facility inspectors. Congress also provided Homeland Security $415 million for humanitarian relief, which Democrats say has not been fully spent despite the department saying it needs more money.

As Democrats have rolled out their top priority bills over the past few months, they’ve only included one on immigration. HR 6, the Dream and Promise Act, would provide permanent legal protections for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, as well as immigrants currently covered by Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure. The House is expected to vote on the bill in May.

Some rank-and-file members have offered other immigration-related measures, but those have yet to be endorsed by leadership or put on committees’ legislative agenda. For example, Texas freshman Veronica Escobar last week introduced the Homeland Security Improvement Act to create a DHS ombudsman and implement other processes designed to serve as a check on the department.

It’s clear, however, that immigration is not top of mind for most Democrats. Rather, they’re focused on health care, infrastructure, climate change and so-called pocketbook issues.

“It’s not moving as quickly as I’d like it to,” Escobar, who represents the border area of El Paso, said of a response to the migrant crisis. “Obviously, this is urgent for me. But as a caucus, we have a laundry list of priorities.”

Lack of public sentiment

One reason immigration is not on the list of Democrats’ top priorities is public sentiment, which Pelosi frequently touts as the key to legislative success.

As House Democrats passed their HR 1 package overhauling voting, campaign finance and ethics laws, the Paycheck Fairness Act to help close the gender pay gap and the Bipartisan Background Checks Act to tighten processes for gun purchases, they cited statistics showing the vast majority of Americans support the policies.

But when it comes to immigration, public sentiment is not overwhelmingly on the Democrats’ side. Although the electorate has generally become more accepting of immigrants over the past few decades, there is no clear mandate for either party to adhere to as they look to rewrite immigration laws.

A Gallup poll from early March found opinions largely split on how much voters worry about illegal immigration. Thirty-six percent of those surveyed said they worried a “great deal,” followed by “only a little” at 24 percent, “not at all” at 21 percent and a “fair amount” at 18 percent.

More telling was a Gallup poll from early February that found that 47 percent of respondents felt that large numbers of undocumented immigrants entering the United States is a critical threat. Another 30 percent said it was important and only 22 percent said it was not important. The percentage of people who viewed it as a critical threat was up 8 points from a year earlier.

Democrats have accused Trump of fear-mongering and believe his anti-immigrant rhetoric has made it more difficult for Congress to tackle an already difficult issue. Pelosi said she wants to work with Trump and Republicans on an immigration overhaul, but she also acknowledged there may need to be a change in public sentiment before the environment is ripe.

“Our view of how we go forward is if we can change people’s financial security … if we can give people confidence, end some of their insecurities about their own economic situation, there will be a better atmosphere among some who are opposed to immigration in the country,” the California Democrat told reporters last week.

That’s why Democrats are more focused on their economic agenda than rewriting immigration laws. They can give the bipartisan overhaul a shot and publicly express optimism about its prospects, but privately most lawmakers acknowledge it faces little-to-no shot of success currently. 

Democrats could use the eventual failure of a bipartisan immigration comprise as a scapegoat for inaction but at least some of their leaders say that if talks with Republicans fail, they should write their own plan.

“We hope to do it in a bipartisan fashion because that’s the most productive, effective way to do it,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said. “But if we can’t, then we will try to move ahead on our own.”

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