President Donald Trump hosted more than a dozen senators at the White House this week to discuss a solution for the more than 700,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children known as Dreamers. California Sen. Kamala Harris, however, was not invited.
For Harris, one of the most vocal champions of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the snub may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Instead of haggling with Republicans as part of the bipartisan group of senators behind a preliminary deal announced Thursday, Harris has used her platform as a rising star in the Democratic Party to keep the young immigrants’ plight in the public eye – and pushed her party to take a hard line in the negotiations to give them permanent legal status.
“It is about being the voice of a state with ... the largest number of Dreamers,” Harris told The Bee this week. “They must be seen and heard, and I feel a very strong sense of responsibility to use every component of power that I have in terms of my voice and ability to educate the public to make sure they are seen and not vilified.”
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That commitment has earned Harris rave reviews from activists. Harris’ arrival in Congress “has been a complete game-changer for advocates who work on this,” said Alida Garcia, coalitions and policy direct at Fwd.us, a technology industry coalition that lobbies for comprehensive immigration change.
At the same time, keeping her distance from the behind-the-scenes horse trading will help Harris avoid responsibility for the inevitable compromises on border security and immigration restrictions that are reportedly in the Senate deal. Such provisions could alienate the activist base the senator is wooing, with an eye toward the 2020 presidential race.
Florida senator and 2016 Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio offers a cautionary tale of how being part of such a fraught a bipartisan negotiation can hamper national political ambitions. The conservative base never forgave him for pursuing a deal that would have created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Thanks to President Trump, protecting DACA has become a similarly hot-button issue this year.
President Obama created the program in 2012 to allow participants to apply for legal status, protecting them from deportation and allowing them to work in the U.S. But Trump put their status in jeopardy when he announced last fall that he wold end DACA as of March 5. That’s led to a flurry of negotiating between members of Congress and the White House to come up with legislation reinstating it. But a deal has been hard to come by.
One of the most junior members of the minority party in the Senate, Harris doesn’t have the longstanding relationships with colleagues to earn a seat at the negotiating table in the Senate. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a 20-year veteran of the chamber, has been the party’s point person in those talks. For years, Durbin has been a leading backer of the Dream Act, legislation that would give young undocumented immigrants permanent legal status, for over a decade.
Durbin has teamed with Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet, who was part of the 2013 negotiations on comprehensive immigration reform, and a rotating cast of Republicans in hashing out draft legislation. Notably, the Senate working group does not include any Latinos or other people of color. And California, which has the largest population of Dreamers in the country, did not have a representative in the talks.
Kerri Talbot, policy director for D.C. Immigration Hub, an umbrella organization helping coordinate pro-immigration activists, said Democrats should have included Harris – the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants – or other senators from the party with immigrant roots. But Talbot added that Harris has still been able to influence the talks.
While she may lack the clout of some of her veteran colleagues, what she does have is deep ties to the activist community pressing for a DACA fix.
“Everyone knows she’s a rising star so she’s got a lot of power behind her, in terms of her following,” Talbot said. After a year in the Senate, she said, Harris has earned a reputation as “the champion for this on the Left.”
It’s a position the California senator began cultivating long before the president threw Dreamers’ status into limbo. Harris has very deliberately made immigrant rights, and more specifically, Dreamers, her signature cause since she arrived in Washington last January.
Trump’s attacks on immigrants was the focus of her maiden speech in the Senate. “I rise on behalf of California’s more than 250,000 Dreamers who were told by the federal government, ‘if you sign up, we will not use your personal information against you,’” Harris said. “I rise to say the United States of America cannot go back on our promise to these kids and their families.”
Garcia credits Harris for leading the challenge against Gen. John Kelly’s nomination to be secretary of Homeland Security (he’s since left the department to become Trump’s chief of staff). In a statement, the California senator attributed her “no” vote on Kelly’s confirmation to his “failure to provide assurances to Dreamers and their families who are living in fear.”
“That was really the first public signal to those of us working to protect immigrants” of how active Harris would be on the issue, Garcia said.
Since then, Harris has become a familiar face at DACA rallies and roundtables in California. She was the first Senate Democrat to announce she would vote against any spending deal that did not include a DACA fix in it, setting the bar for Democrats to use their spending vote as leverage. And for her Democratic colleagues, she’s seen as the one who has the pulse of the activist community on immigration.
Harris has been in regular communication with Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer on DACA, a leadership aide confirms. Before Christmas, she and a fellow former state attorney general, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, addressed the Democratic caucus’ weekly lunch in the U.S. Capitol, to underscore the urgency of the issue.
“Each day 122 of these kids loses (their legal) status,” Harris told reporters earlier this week. “As of today, since September 5, over 15,000 have lost status.”
Not all Democrats were swayed by those kind of exhortations. Eighteen Democrats voted for a year-end spending bill to keep the government open, despite its failure to address DACA.
Democrats have also splintered over what kind of concessions they should make to Republicans. The president has been pushing for changes to the legal immigration system, which he laid out at the meeting senators broadcast live from the White House on Tuesday. Details of the new Senate deal are still emerging, but it appears to include new rules for family-based migration and the visa lottery system.
The test for Harris now is whether she’s willing to throw her support behind a compromise and try to rally immigrants’ rights groups to do so, as well. Democratic leaders recognize she is key to selling the deal to the party’s liberal base. But they also have to give the president at least some of what he wants to win his signature.
Harris, however, has been firm. While she said she supported funding for things like new border security technology, “the idea of a wall is ridiculous.” She also opposes changes to the legal immigration system, and is unlikely to support the deal if it includes any of those components.
Even if the final product doesn’t meet Harris’ standards, her activism has earned the fervent embrace of immigration advocates over the course of her short time in Washington. That’s a political coup for any Democrat with national ambitions.