When Allies Attack: Friction Between Democrats, Immigration Advocates

Hard feelings about groups pressuring minority party

Demonstrators with United We Dream and others rally in the atrium of the Hart Building in January to call on Congress to pass the so-called DREAM Act to protect young immigrants from deportation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Friction lingers between Senate Democrats and progressive advocacy groups after the chamber failed to advance a bipartisan bill in February to protect the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers. 

Tensions came to a breaking point in the weeks before the Senate voted on several immigration-related proposals aimed at extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, aides say. The rift was a long time in the making, as some Democratic lawmakers questioned the strategy that pro-immigration and progressive groups used to drive action over the past six months.

A handful of those groups — earning the ire of some Democrats — opposed a key bipartisan measure days before the Senate vote. And advocates in recent months increasingly exerted pressure on members of their own party, whose support for addressing the DACA issue was already locked in.

Democratic senators and aides felt that time could have been better spent targeting the dozen or so Republicans who could have potentially voted for the measure.

Watch: Trump’s Impulsiveness Could Get in Way of Border Wall Promise

“It was unfortunate. I very much appreciate the frustration, the fear, the anger that they have. But they needed to direct it to the people that are stopping this from happening, and it’s not Democrats,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chairwoman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said she saw “missed opportunities to put pressure, particularly on Republicans in states where there’s a great deal of support for these young people.”

But activists said they couldn’t let any lawmaker off the hook.

“We can disagree with those who we believe are our friends, [but] we need to make sure that they understand that we are going to continue pressuring,” Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, an organization focused on civic engagement among the Latino community, said in a recent interview. “I just don’t think that giving a pass to any elected official because they are saying that they would act, we need to remind them that actions speak louder than words.”

Lowering the bar

Lawmakers say expectations were set that exceeded what Democrats could feasibly do as a minority party in both chambers. And some still question the decision to shut down the government in January over the immigration issue.

Advocates counter that the strategy, including the government shutdown, was crafted by the top brass of Senate Democratic leadership and that outside groups were simply adhering to guidance Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and others provided last year.

A number of advocacy organizations, like United We Dream, released statements in December and January urging Democratic lawmakers to withhold votes for the short-term spending bills. 

But a senior Democratic aide denied that party leadership had encouraged outside interest groups to push for a shutdown. 

Tensions also spiked when some interest groups came out in strong opposition to a bipartisan bill that would have provided a path to citizenship to millions of dreamers but also forced Democrats to make deep concessions on other immigration issues.

“Progressive organizations on the outside have got to realize that progressives are not in charge of the House or the Senate or the White House,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “That requires a different calculus of how you get things done.”

The disagreements culminated in a failed vote on a bill from South Dakota Republican Mike Rounds and Maine independent Angus King. Of the four measures the Senate voted on, it had been viewed as the only one that could have theoretically passed the chamber. While a large portion of the Democratic caucus voted for the bill, three senators — Kamala Harris of California and Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — voted against it.

“We felt that Sens. Harris, Udall and Heinrich made the wrong decision. I think that showing the White House that there were 57 bipartisan votes versus the 39 partisan votes that the White House had been able to organize would have been a very good contrast,” Noorani said.

Only eight Republicans supported the legislation, but Democrats believe that leading up to the vote as many as seven or eight more GOP members — enough for the legislation to pass — were poised to back it until the White House took drastic steps to discredit the bill. Some believe their support could have been firmed up if advocates had spent less time pressuring Democrats who, by and large, were already supportive of the bill.

[Republican Senators Look to Get Out Front on Immigration]

Falling short

The frustration over the involvement of outside groups is not exclusive to Democrats. Some Republicans who are active on immigration said conservative advocates could have done more to push the issue.

“The business community, I was underwhelmed by their response,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said. “The passion that needs to be there for immigration reform by the business community is not. You had some high-tech working groups that helped around the margins, but the Chamber of Commerce and others were pretty much AWOL.”

Democrats and some Republicans were facing a March 5 deadline that President Donald Trump set last year when he announced he would terminate DACA. But federal judges have since blocked the administration from shutting down the program, leaving the people it protects in a sort of legal limbo. 

Yet with wounds over the failed Senate vote still fresh and as questions linger over whether the White House actually wants a deal, it’s not clear whether even a smaller, more focused bill could advance.

“The president has now turned down a series of bipartisan deals. The president turned down $25 billion in wall funding, and the reason that that appears to be happening is because there are folks in the administration who are only interested in protecting Dreamers if it comes with massive cuts to legal immigration,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a bipartisan advocacy group.

Advocates to the rescue?

The work of outside interest groups can have a substantial impact on major legislation.

Senators on both sides of the aisle credit the work of advocates as a key reason why Democrats were successful in blocking a measure to overhaul the 2010 health care law. But members say there are stark differences between that effort and the ongoing campaign on immigration.

Democratic aides say the DACA advocacy community is less politically knowledgeable and that the decision by Trump to end the program caught the community by surprise. Advocates counter that the end of the program was foreshadowed by Trump’s tough rhetoric on immigration throughout the campaign and believe Democrats should have been more prepared for the decision.

The strategy employed by outside groups, Democratic aides say, was fraught from the start. Sources say Schumer and other Democratic leaders agreed early on in the debate that withholding votes for a government spending bill would be necessary to push an immigration vote on the Senate floor.

Advocates say they were told to put pressure on Democrats in advance of every vote on a spending bill, including prior to the continuing resolution that Congress passed in December to extend government funding to January 2018. Senior Democratic aides deny encouraging such a campaign.

Progressive organizations like Crooked Media, a group started by staffers who worked for former President Barack Obama, published lists of Democratic senators who vowed to vote against a short-term spending bill without a DACA fix and urged advocates to pressure those members who had not yet publicized their position.

A spokesperson for the group did not respond to an interview request.

Groups also arranged sit-ins and staged protests outside of Schumer’s Manhattan office.

Democratic aides say the intense focus on members who already supported legislation to protect the Dreamers was misplaced.

“Advocates, I think, turned the debate into a less successful endeavor potentially because they focused on congressional Democrats as opposed to the administration,” one aide said. “I don’t think anyone here doubts their intentions. The entire Democratic caucus in addition to the operative world thinks their intentions were good, but the tactic they choose was ill-fated.”

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