Politics & Government

Can Democrats force a litmus test on DACA?

Protesters demonstrate over the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.
Protesters demonstrate over the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. NYT

Democrats’ efforts to present a united front on Dreamers could soon break apart along 2018’s political fault lines.

The party could risk long-term damage with minority constituencies viewed as critical to its future if Democrats join Republicans in keeping the government open without a permanent solution for the more than 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

But the members of the party with the power in that decision — a handful of Senate Democrats from states President Donald Trump won in 2016— represent relatively small populations of Latino voters.

The government faces a partial shutdown after Friday unless Trump and Congress agree to continue funding. The Trump-state Democrats, whose votes are needed to keep the government open, could pay a big political price for a shutdown.

“It’s a political bombshell for Democrats because we have such momentum with Latino voters that we’ve seen in the off-cycle… we want to capitalize on that for 2018,” said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who specializes in the Latino vote, said of the dilemma confronting Democrats.

Seeking a bipartisan compromise to avoid a government shutdown, President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that an immigration deal could be reached in two phases - first by addressing young immigrants and border security with what he called a "bill

“Most Democrats that are in red states don’t have large Latino populations, so that worries me,” said Rocha. “There’s not a political ramification.”

Of the 26 seats now held by senators who caucus with Democrats up for election this year, 10 are in states Trump won in 2016.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., represents a state whose population is 1 percent Hispanic, according to Pew Research Center.

In Missouri, where Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is seeking re-election, 4 percent of the population is Hispanic. In Indiana, where Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., is up, 6 percent of residents are Hispanic.

None of these Democrats are eager for a shutdown. But helping Republicans keep the government open could undermine Democrats’ efforts to stand united as the party of minorities now and in the future.

The party has relied heavily on minority votes. In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won two-thirds of the Latino vote and 89 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls. She won 37 percent of the white vote to Trump’s 57 percent. In 2012, President Barack Obama won 93 percent of black voters, 71 percent of Latino voters, and 73 percent of Asian voters.

“Latinos could blame Democrats as a whole if we lose part of our caucus on a vote that doesn’t secure DACA for the long term,” said Rocha.

Trump vowed to end the DACA program in September, and asked Congress to find a legal solution for its recipients to remain in the country after his March 5 deadline.

Out of power in both chambers of Congress this year, Democrats have long said it’s Republicans who will shoulder the blame if the DACA program is allowed to expire and young people are deported. They’ve vowed to stay united on a solution, which they say is critical to their party’s promises to minority voters.

Yet in these final days before a spending deadline, immigration reform advocates who have been working on this issue for years concede Republicans could succeed in driving a wedge.

“If you want to look at leverage, the places to look are, are Republicans succeeding in isolating Senate Democratic moderates? And can [House Speaker] Paul Ryan hold his Freedom Caucus?” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of the immigration reform group America's Voice.

On Capitol Hill, Republicans are eagerly seeking to drive that divide.

Despite a public promise from Trump that he would sign “just about any” DACA solution offered by Congress, the president last week rejected a proposal that had support from Republican and Democratic senators.

Trump has only given his blessing to one plan, authored by House conservatives, a plan aimed squarely at courting GOP votes in the House.

It offers three-year permit renewals for DACA recipients, in exchange for a long list of immigration law changes and border security measures. Democratic leaders rejected it immediately.

But if that plan can pass the House with Republican votes — and the GOP controls 239 of the 435 seats — its authors say they could corner enough red state Democrats to get the 60 votes needed in the Senate. Republicans currently control 51 seats in that chamber.

“This is the only bill that’s going to unify [House Republicans], and that’s going to get us to the majority of the conference,” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, told reporters in a press conference unveiling his Trump-approved Securing America First Act.

Asked about the bill’s chances in the Senate, Labrador said voters in red states “actually want border security before giving any benefits to the DACA population.”

“I think we can get nine senators, absolutely,” he said.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch

Hector Rivera Suarez, the student body president at Guilford College, traveled to Washington this week to advocate for an immigration deal for those who arrived in the U.S. as children. Rivera Suarez's protected status will expire on Jan. 21, whic