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The Compromise On Immigration Is Clear, But The Parties Are Struggling To Get There

The monthslong debate over how or if Congress and President Trump should replace President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has both exposed and widened divides within each party over the broader issue of immigration policy. These divides make it hard to predict what will happen on immigration this year: a bipartisan deal on DACA emerging in the next few days or weeks; a government shutdown over the issue, leading to either gridlock or an agreement; or no legislation passing at all.

A White House meeting on Tuesday among Trump and lawmakers in both parties suggested that a deal could be imminent — but that also seemed true in September and nothing actually materialized.

So let’s look more closely at these divides within each party.

The Democrats

Generally, Democrats are unified on policy: They want some kind of legislation like DACA that essentially means that hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children can get work permits and won’t be deported. They would like DACA recipients to have some kind of pathway to U.S. citizenship. Democrats are leery of some GOP-backed provisions limiting immigration and of Trump’s proposed border wall.

But they are divided on the tactics they should use to get their preferred outcome, namely whether they should block bills to fund the government (current funding expires Jan. 19) and force a shutdown if a DACA-style provision is not included. Here are the competing camps:

1. The 2020 Democrats vs. the 2018 Democrats

There’s a bloc of Senate Democrats, including New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and California’s Kamala Harris, who are taking steps to run for president in 2020. These senators, particularly Harris (who represents the state with the largest number of DACA recipients), are perhaps the leading voices favoring a shutdown if DACA is not addressed.

In contrast, senators who are running for re-election this November in states where Trump won in 2016, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, have suggested that they are not comfortable with a shutdown over DACA.

2. The party leaders vs. the liberals

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were two of the key figures of the 2006 Democratic takeover of the House and Senate.1 Their strategy was essentially for Democrats to take few risky stands on their own and instead focus on linking Republican members of Congress to an unpopular GOP president. Watching their moves in 2017, this appears to be Pelosi and Schumer’s general strategy now, too: strongly oppose Trump and congressional GOP policies and hope Republicans self-immolate. A shutdown over DACA initiated by the Democrats has the risk of narrowing the party’s political advantages as we head toward the midterm elections.

In contrast, some party activists outside Congress and liberal members of the House and Senate don’t seem to be worried about a backlash. Some party activists feel that Democrats should be less eager to compromise with Republicans — not just on immigration but on other issues as well. They are looking for a confrontational approach, similar to how Republicans dealt with Obama. These activists are likely to strongly oppose any immigration compromise that includes funding for a border wall — or anything else Trump campaigned on in 2016. The liberal group Indivisible has bluntly dubbed Democrats who have voted for government spending bills that do not include a DACA fix the “Deportation Caucus.”

Holding the line on DACA even if it causes a shutdown might not be as risky as it seems. In 2013, congressional Republicans helped force a government shutdown by pushing for some changes to the Affordable Care Act that Obama opposed. Voters didn’t punish the GOP at all: Republicans gained control of the Senate and expanded their margin in the House in the 2014 elections.

3. Democrats who want the party to take strong, liberal stands on racial issues vs. Democrats who are more cautious on racial issues

Obama’s decision in 2013 to reject the changes Republicans sought to Obamacare and allow a shutdown was not a particularly surprisingly stance: Democrats had been trying for decades to extend health insurance to more Americans, so they weren’t going to stomach their major health care legislation being weakened.

Some in the Democratic Party are treating DACA like Obamacare: a core policy of the party that it should defend at all costs, even at the price of a shutdown. This strong defense of DACA and “Dreamers” — the young undocumented immigrants protected by the program — reflects how more lenient stances on immigration have become Democratic orthodoxy.

“Latinos are a critical part of the progressive coalition and progressive leaders have to step up and fight for them,” the political arm of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank said in a memo published Monday. “If Democrats can’t even stand up to Trump and Republicans in defense of Dreamers — whose moral case is unassailable — they will leave a lot of progressives wondering who Democrats will fight for.”

What’s the other side of this issue? It’s hard to get a Democrat to say this publicly, but the question hanging over the debate is this: Should a Democratic Party that Trump cast as too immigrant-friendly and out of touch with white, working-class America to win the presidency force a government shutdown over a program whose main beneficiaries are Latino young adults?

The Republicans

The Republicans and Trump, in contrast, seem to agree on tactics: They want to extract something from Democrats in exchange for enacting a DACA-style law. But it’s hard to tell exactly what outcome Republicans want in terms of policy. Here are the party’s central disputes:

1. A wall vs. more fencing vs. nothing

The president is still calling for a wall, though without much specificity. Trump’s administration has requested that lawmakers allocate $18 billion over the next 10 years to fund 316 miles of new fencing along the United States-Mexico border. Because there is already fencing along 654 miles of the border, this proposal would mean that about half of the border would have some kind of physical barrier.

But this would not be a traditional wall, and it would not be completed until well after Trump leaves office. So the unpredictable Trump could decide at some point that he does really want a wall. Also, neither a wall nor expanded fencing was among the main priorities that congressional Republicans campaigned on in 2016, and some of them are lukewarm about the idea now.

2. DACA vs. nothing

While there’s a bloc of more moderate House Republicans and GOP senators like Arizona’s Jeff Flake who strongly favor a DACA-style bill, more conservative members of the House, such as the Freedom Caucus, may not vote for any bill that includes protections from deportation for undocumented immigrants. To these members, any kind of leniency on immigration for those who entered the country outside of the formal legal process will encourage illegal immigration in the future.

It’s not clear how big this anti-DACA bloc is. But House Speaker Paul Ryan is generally reluctant to push legislation that is heavily reliant on Democratic voters to pass, so a DACA fix could be stalled permanently if enough House Republicans oppose it.

3. DACA vs. DACA plus lots of immigration limits

Trump and conservatives like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton have proposed limiting the ability of people who immigrate to the U.S. to petition for their relatives to come as well and to cut down the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter the U.S. each year. Trump also wants funding to hire 15,000 more agents to patrol the border and enforce immigration law. The president has suggested he could only sign a DACA-style provision with some of these immigration limits put in place as well.

But other Republicans either outright oppose these measures or are not particularly enthusiastic about them.

4. Citizenship vs. no citizenship

Some Republicans, like Democrats, strongly support an eventual path to citizenship for DACA recipients, but others in the GOP, including Trump, seem to be less committed to that idea.

Even with the divides in both parties, the potential outlines of a bipartisan deal on immigration are obvious: some kind of permanent legal status and path to citizenship for Dreamers but with limits on their ability to sponsor relatives who also want legal status; an expansion of the physical barriers between the United States and Mexico; and the hiring of some additional border agents and other immigration enforcement personnel.

But I don’t think it will be easy to get all Republicans to agree to policies that are much less than what Trump promised on the campaign trail. I also think it will be hard for Democrats, in their aggressive posture in favor of immigrants and against Trump, to reach a compromise that their base is happy about and therefore members feel comfortable voting for.

I suspect there will be lots of rumors about “deals” on immigration over the next few days and weeks. But remember, an actual deal is something that has enough Republican support in the House for Ryan to bring it up for a vote, the votes of at least least nine Democratic senators and the support of Trump. That ain’t easy.


  1. Pelosi was also the House minority leader then, Schumer the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.