POLITICS
01/20/2018 17:08 EST | Updated 01/20/2018 17:21 EST

Progressive Activists Divided On What Immigration Compromises They Will Accept

The border wall is a sticking point for some, but not others.

As the federal government partially shut down at the stroke of midnight early Saturday morning, progressive activists presented a united front with congressional Democratic leadership.

Blame for the shutdown, they declared in press releases and social media posts, lay squarely with President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans for rejecting bipartisan deals that would provide permanent protection to “Dreamers,” as the group of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children are commonly known.

“When Trump rejected a bipartisan immigration deal and ended negotiations, he threw the entire government into chaos,” MoveOn executive director Ilya Sheyman said in a statement. “Now, it’s on Republicans to restart those negotiations, pass legislation to protect Dreamers—who have been left in limbo since Trump ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in September—and reopen the government.”

The harmony wouldn’t last long. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sparked ire from the grassroots left when he revealed in a floor speech early Saturday that during talks with Trump he had agreed to “put the border wall on the table for the discussion.”

In response to a question at a press conference on Saturday about what that meant exactly, Schumer said, “I’m not gonna get into the specific numbers, but I will tell you it was the president who suggested a specific number and I said, ‘Let’s put it on the table.’” 

The tensions raise the prospect of discord in Democratic ranks at a time when the party has high hopes for major gains the midterm elections this November.

“While Trump and Republicans completely own this #TrumpShutdown, it is embarrassing to see the #SchumerSellout charade play out on the Senate floor,” said Murshed Zaheed, political director of Credo, an activism group that mobilizes its 5 million members to pressure Congress on progressive causes. “Schumer conceding on the wall is deeply immoral and unacceptable.”

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a speech that he had expressed openness to funding a border wall during discussions with President Donald Trump.

Waleed Shahid, a spokesman for Justice Democrats, which backs progressive congressional candidates, including many primary challengers, noted that Schumer was among the Democratic leaders who attended anti-Trump rallies where protesters chanted “no ban, no wall.”

Hundreds of thousands of activists took to the streets in cities across the country with a similar message on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the women’s march, Shahid observed.

“Progressives were happy to see Chuck Schumer and the Democrats respond to grassroots organizing over the past few months that led to unifying enough of the caucus to fight on this,” Shahid said. “But there was absolutely no reason why Schumer needed to publicly and enthusiastically declare that he was willing to give Trump the wall in exchange for a deal.”

Yasmine Taeb, a Virginia Democratic National Committeewoman who led many of the first Washington, D.C.-area protests against Trump’s travel ban, praised Schumer’s leadership thus far, claiming that “overall he’s been very receptive to the grassroots.”

Taeb, a human rights attorney, nonetheless agreed that funding for the wall, which activists view as a powerful gesture of white supremacism, is a dealbreaker.

“The issue is how and why [Trump] campaigned on that message,” Taeb said. “We refer to it as a racist border wall ... because that’s how it’s seen.”

In September, when Trump put an expiration date on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that had temporarily shielded Dreamers from deportation and provided them access to legal work opportunities, he turned it into a bargaining chip for his restrictive immigration goals.

Progressive immigration activists have long advocated for the Dream Act, a bill that which would grant permanent legal status to young undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. After the September announcement, advocates ramped up their protests, staging dozens of mass demonstrations demanding a “clean” Dream Act be passed without any concessions to Republicans. 

These activists frequently note that the Dream Act is incredibly popular with the American public, giving Democrats greater leverage in negotiations. Eighty-three percent of Americans favor allowing Dreamers to remain in the United States, according to a CNN poll released in December.

Trump’s inconsistent signals about what he wants from a deal makes it even less necessary to entertain major concessions, according to Shahid.

“I don’t think we can trust where the president is coming from on any of this,” Shahid said.

In the realpolitik of this moment, it’s clear the only way it passes is if Republicans get enough to support it and Trump gets enough where he can at least sign it. Frank Sharry, America's Voice

Given Republican control of the White House and Congress, and the politically unpredictable outcome of a prolonged shutdown, however, not all progressives are sure that some wall funding ― or any other specific concession ― should be off the table.

“In the realpolitik of this moment, it’s clear the only way it passes is if Republicans get enough to support it and Trump gets enough where he can at least sign it,” said Frank Sharry, founder of the immigration reform group America’s Voice, which had pushed for a clean Dream Act for months.

Rep. Luis Gutíerrez (D-Ill.), who is perhaps Congress’ most prominent immigration reform advocate, also said he would be willing to vote for a government funding bill that protected Dreamers ― even if it included funding for a wall. (Back in August, Gutíerrez had insisted that Democrats needed to vote down any bill that funded the border wall.)

“It’s an awfully wasteful burden on the taxpayers to build a wall, but I’ve come to a conclusion that lives are more important than bricks,” Gutíerrez told HuffPost on Saturday.

Sharry of America’s Voice said that compromises needed to be weighed against the need to shield Dreamers from deportation, as well other priorities like securing work permits for the parents of some Dreamers and reinstating the legal status of hundreds of thousands of Haitians and El Salvadorans. (The Trump administration ended the temporary protected status of 59,000 Haitian immigrants and 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants who had fled natural disasters.)

To that end, Sharry called the outline of the deal that Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) were discussing before talks reached an impasse a “genuine bipartisan compromise.”

The Graham-Durbin agreement included some funding for border enforcement that could be used toward a physical barrier at the southern border that Sharry said, “Trump will call a wall but we know really isn’t.”

For Zaheed’s part, the Graham-Durbin deal is “not OK.” The Credo leader suggested that lawmakers should look at more moderate legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) “with the same level of intensity.” The Hurd-Aguilar bill protects DACA recipients from deportation, while providing funding for more border security. Unlike the Graham-Durbin deal, Hurd-Aguilar does not address legal immigration levels.

Regardless, some advocates believe that the border wall itself has taken on an undue level of importance. Sharry noted that in many cases the addition of more immigration enforcement personnel is in some ways a greater concern than the wall, since border patrol agents “roam around border communities stopping brown people and asking for their papers” and ICE agents “are ripping families apart.”

Sharry echoes the views of groups like the Southern Border Communities Coalition, which represents communities in the crosshairs of tougher border enforcement, and fears the consequences of an influx of border agents. 

“I honestly don’t know what we would do if we were talking about $18 billion for 1,000 miles of concrete wall. But that’s not what we understand is on the table,” Sharry concluded.

Elise Foley contributed reporting.

2017 Scenes From Congress & Capitol Hill