Originally published by The NY Times
In early June, the Washington office of Representative Pramila Jayapal began to hear rumors about the women. They had crossed into Texas, where Border Patrol officers promptly arrested them. But now the women were somewhere around Seattle, the city Jayapal represents.
Her staff made calls. Usually, undocumented immigrants in the area were held at the Northwest Detention Center, a private facility operated under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But the detention center had not received the women. There were too many of them for ICE to house. Instead, as Jayapal learned on June 7, the mothers were now inmates at a Bureau of Prisons facility near the Seattle-Tacoma airport.
Jayapal flew home to Seattle the following night. She showed up at the federal prison the next morning and was escorted to the three pods where the new inmates were held. There were 174 women. Many of them had come to the United States with their children, some as young as 5. A majority were from the violence-racked Central American countries El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras; others had traveled from as far as China and the Democratic Republic of Congo. All of them sought asylum. Some of them, after crossing the Rio Grande, spent their first night in the United States shivering in their damp clothes on Mylar sheets in the sprawling processing center in McAllen, Tex., nicknamed the hielera, or icebox.
But at least their children had been with them. Now they were gone. The immigration authorities would not say where the children had been taken or when they would be returned. As part of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy, several thousand children were being separated from their parents at the border — a tactic that previous administrations had avoided and that the mothers could not have anticipated. Meanwhile, the 174 women, having been denied initial interviews to determine whether their asylum claims merited their protection under international law, were instead piled onto airplanes and flown to the Pacific Northwest, where they were given slips of paper with their children’s names on them.
Jayapal sat and listened to the women for nearly three hours. Then, outside the prison, she spoke into an aide’s video camera. After vowing to help return the separated children to their parents, Jayapal set her sights on ICE. “I am going to do everything I can in my power,” she said, “to stop funding a rogue agency at the Department of Homeland Security.”
Of the 535 current members of Congress, only 12 are immigrants, and Jayapal is one of them. The first Indian-American woman to be elected to the House, Jayapal, who is now 53, came to the United States at age 16, unaccompanied and on a student visa — not to flee chaos but to attend great universities (Georgetown and Northwestern) and then make a comfortable living (first by executing leveraged buyouts at PaineWebber on Wall Street and then by selling heart defibrillators out of Cincinnati). She left the private sector in 1991 to work for nonprofits, and in 2001, a year after becoming an American citizen, she became an immigration rights organizer. She developed a reputation for her fierce intelligence, energy and media savvy — and appetite for the national stage. She was elected to Congress as a Democrat on the same night that Donald Trump won the presidency.
Trump’s incendiary immigration policies have afforded Jayapal a spotlight seldom made available to freshman legislators. But in pledging to “stop funding a rogue agency,” Jayapal directed the spotlight onto the Democratic Party’s ambivalent feelings about immigration. Jayapal represents a new breed of liberal politician who is — along with some of this year’s other congressional candidates, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — more wedded to social-justice movements than to the slow grind of governance. For years, a number of immigration advocates had been agitating to abolish ICE. Now Jayapal was on record as the first member of Congress to openly endorse doing so.
On June 25, her colleague Mark Pocan of Wisconsin — the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which Jayapal is first vice chairwoman — announced that he would soon be introducing a bill that would form a new agency to replace ICE within a year; Jayapal joined as a co-sponsor. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, believed by many to be positioning herself for a presidential run in 2020, jumped on the bandwagon, telling Chris Cuomo on CNN, “I think you should reimagine ICE under a new agency with a very different mission.”
But the party’s most prominent immigration policymakers in the House — Luis V. Gutiérrez of Illinois and Zoe Lofgren of California — were not at all happy with the Abolish ICE bill. “I talked to Mark and told him, ‘I don’t think this is a good bill,’ ” Lofgren, a former immigration lawyer, told me. “It lets President Trump off the hook. ICE is doing what he told them to do.” Gutiérrez, a note of bewilderment in his voice, said: “I mean, you want to change the conversation from the inhumanity of caging children to abolishing ICE? They must have been jumping for joy at the White House.” (Indeed, Trump subsequently scoffed: “Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats want to abolish the brave men and women of ICE. What I want to do is abolish the killers in ISIS.”)
The bill’s proponents also seemed oblivious to how it would play in districts less liberal than, say, Seattle. In late June, while the notion of abolishing ICE was first being voiced by elected Democrats, Representative Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana expressed his consternation during a caucus meeting. “I’ve been here a long time,” he said, according to one person who was present as well as notes taken by a second attendee. “At one time, there were eight Democrats from Indiana” in the House. “Now there are two.”
The economic conditions in Indiana remained a source of overriding concern for his constituents, Visclosky said. In meetings with them, “they said that they will vote for me — implying that they won’t vote for other Democrats. I’m trying to help them with their jobs.” He went on: “I support everything that this caucus is doing on immigration, and on the Syrian population. But I just hope that someday this caucus shows the same energy and passion” when “we talk about jobs.” Several in the caucus applauded.
When Representative Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican and the House majority leader, got wind of the Abolish ICE bill, he gleefully offered to schedule it for an immediate vote. Jayapal and Pocan saw the bind they were in with their caucus and indicated that they would vote against their own bill if it were brought to the floor. McCarthy retaliated with a bill declaring support for ICE. “It’s a political vote,” Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, advised Democrats. “Treat it politically.” Jayapal and most of her fellow Democrats simply voted “present,” though several from conservative districts — including Visclosky — voted for the resolution.
McCarthy’s stunt may have been cynical, but the Democrats were in no position to claim the moral high ground. Hardly for the first time, the party had entered the immigration debate with palpable misgivings — and then, at the brink of action, scattered. “Democrats don’t even agree with their own bill they introduced,” McCarthy triumphantly crowed on the House floor. “They lack the courage of their so-called convictions.”
Few issues have been made more black and white by the Trump administration than the highly complex matter of immigration. A quarter-century ago, both political parties had the same room-temperature appraisal of immigrants. But while Republicans have reacted to the question of whether immigrants strengthen the United States in a mostly static way over time — 30 percent responding positively in 1994 and 35 percent doing so in 2016, according to a Pew Research study — the favorable view among Democrats has risen sharply over the same period, to 78 percent from 32 percent.
Today the Democratic Party is generally pro-immigration. And yet many of its elected officeholders remain deeply wary of saying so and especially conflicted about how to address the flaws in the country’s immigration system — or whether to address them at all. Their reasoning may be as simple as this: Unlike Republican voters, who routinely punish their politicians for being insufficiently anti-immigrant, Democratic voters do not reward theirs for being forthrightly pro-immigrant.
“Fifteen years ago, we viewed the immigration-reform community as the redheaded stepchild of the Democratic coalition,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group. “Unions were skeptical, if not opposed. Environmentalists were conflicted. And civil rights groups didn’t see us as central to their cause.”
There are other reasons immigration has yet to reliably animate Democratic lawmakers. One of them was evident when I met Sharry in his office in a WeWork rental space in downtown Washington. Relative to other progressive special interests, the immigrant rights movement has traditionally been a pauper’s crusade, lacking in billionaire benefactors and financially outmatched by ideological rivals like the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation of American Immigration Reform and NumbersUSA.
Mark Zuckerberg, Laurene Powell Jobs and George Soros have recently begun donating to specific immigration causes like family reunification and giving seed money to migrant entrepreneurs. But in general, said Kevin Appleby, a senior director at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a nonpartisan immigration think tank affiliated with the Catholic Church, “some of the immigration funders can blow hot and cold, because they’re as frustrated as we are when there’s not a lot of progress on the immigration-reform front.”
Immigrants, meanwhile, are a less than formidable electoral force. Undocumented immigrants (there are roughly 22.1 million, according to a new Yale study) cannot vote. The country’s estimated 27.3 million eligible Latino voters, a subset of whom constitute the dominant demographic group among legal immigrants, consistently turn out in low numbers. Never was this more apparent than in the 2016 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton’s welcoming stance toward undocumented immigrants failed to generate any increase in Hispanic turnout, even against an opponent who began his campaign with a speech characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers.
But there is another explanation for why immigration has long been relegated to the Democratic Party’s back burner. Until recently, Americans have tended to view immigration less as a moral issue and more in crass economic terms. “Though everyone says the system is broken, there’s also a nod-nod wink-wink belief that it is broke, so don’t fix it,” Appleby said. “The crops are being picked. The tables are being bused. The only wronged party are the undocumented immigrants with little political power, and no one’s ever been voted out of office because immigration reform failed to pass.”
Instead, since long before Trump, Democratic politicians have feared that supporting immigrants would result in being voted out of office — specifically by conservative constituents who fear Muslim terrorists or undocumented Latinos taking advantage of public services, overrunning schools and hospitals. President Bill Clinton understood this dynamic well. During his triangulating quest for re-election in 1996, Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which added more border fencing and piled on further penalties for those illegally crossing into the United States.
Immigration advocates were pleasantly surprised when Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, made good on his campaign rhetoric to prioritize immigration reform. Bush’s White House advisers spent the summer of 2001 contriving a pathway to citizenship for some three million undocumented immigrants, with legislative support from fellow Republicans like Senator John McCain and Representative Paul D. Ryan. That effort extended to the early morning of Sept. 11, when White House officials had scheduled a gathering in a Capitol office building to discuss immigration policies, up to and including amnesty, that “were a lot more liberal than anything we’re seeing today,” says Mike Gempler, the executive director of the Washington Growers League, a nonprofit advocacy group for farmers in Washington State.
Pramila Jayapal was living in Seattle and directing a technology transfer fund in September 2001 when a local schoolteacher friend informed her that Muslim and Arab children were skipping school because they were being bullied by classmates. Jayapal formed the Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington, an organization that led a pro bono legal effort that halted the deportation of more than 2,700 Somali immigrants — part of the Bush administration’s post-Sept. 11 immigration crackdown that also started deportation proceedings against 14,000 Muslims under a “special registration” policy designed by Attorney General John Ashcroft’s immigration adviser, Kris Kobach. (Kobach would later, as Kansas secretary of state, advocate aggressive voter-ID laws as well as a Muslim registry and serve as the vice chairman of Trump’s short-lived commission to investigate election fraud.)
In 2008, Hate Free Zone morphed into OneAmerica, a group advocating equal justice and human rights for immigrants. In November of that year, Jayapal wept while watching Barack Obama win the presidency. Like most Democrats, she assumed that a progressive black senator who had been a community organizer and whose father was Kenyan would be more sympathetic to immigrants than a wealthy conservative Texan.
But Jayapal had no illusions about her party’s commitment to the issue. Aside from a few champions — chief among them Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Lofgren and Gutiérrez — Democrats had shown only flagging support for immigration reform during the Bush presidency. In 2006, the current and future Democratic Senate leaders, Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, initially resisted a comprehensive reform package sponsored by McCain and Kennedy because, Frank Sharry says, “all they cared about was winning back the Senate, and they didn’t want to hand Bush a victory.” But when it failed in the House and was replaced by a bill to build several hundred miles of secure fencing along the border, both Democratic leaders voted for it — as did Hillary Clinton and Obama, both senators at the time.
A year later, the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, and Gutiérrez thought the moment was ripe for immigration legislation. “I go to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and I say, ‘I got this bill,’ ” he recalled. “She says, ‘Go find me 45 to 50 Republicans who’ll sign onto the bill, and come back and we’ll talk.’ I’m like: What the [expletive]? We’re, like, in the majority. Why do I have this onus on me? But I knew why. Nancy Pelosi isn’t going to put the majority at risk.”
The concern was prescient. Roughly a third of Senate Democrats sided against a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007, which would have provided more money for border fencing as well as a new process for undocumented residents in the United States to eventually obtain citizenship. Most of the dissenting caucus members came from conservative states, but a few others were union allies, like Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont — “this progressive icon,” Gutiérrez snickered, “racing from the Senate floor to go on ‘Lou Dobbs’ to say how he’s standing up for the American worker.”
In the fall of 2007, Niki Tsongas, a Democrat, won a House special election in Massachusetts that should not have been as close as it was. Democrats widely believed that Tsongas hurt her chances when, two days before the election, she stated that undocumented immigrants ought to be able to obtain a driver’s license. In what Sharry would term an “iconic” moment for the immigrant rights community, Rahm Emanuel, then the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, told The Washington Post that immigration had “emerged as the third rail of American politics. And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.”
Obama named Emanuel his chief of staff immediately after his victory in 2008, which sent an unsettling signal to Gutiérrez. “A few weeks after the election, I’m shooting pool with a bunch of lawyer buddies, and I decide to show them how cool I am by calling on my cellphone my brother from Chicago, the president-elect of the United States,” Gutiérrez recalled this summer in his Washington office. “Barack — I can’t believe it — he picks up! I said, ‘Listen, I gotta come down and talk to you.’ ” When they later met in person, Gutiérrez said, “I brought up immigration. And I remember, he said: ‘Luis, we’re losing hundreds of thousands of jobs. It’s economic chaos. This is not the time.’ He said, ‘Let’s try it in 120 days.’ ”
Still, Gutiérrez, Jayapal and other immigration advocates were unprepared for what came next. Obama’s secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, and the director of ICE, John Morton, began issuing deportations at a record pace, while continuing Bush’s policy of workplace raids. After an outcry from immigrant groups, ICE shifted its tactics from busting workers to the more visually antiseptic practice of auditing businesses. But the effect was just as crippling, said Gempler of the Washington Growers League: “The audits we characterized as slow-moving raids.”
With the Democratic administration more preoccupied with demonstrating its commitment to enforcing laws than with fixing a dysfunctional system, immigration advocates realized that their own strategy needed reappraising. “One of the major inflection moments in the immigration rights movement was in 2009 and 2010, after waiting around for Obama to prioritize immigration reform, which he didn’t do,” recalls Deepak Bhargava of the social-justice group Center for Community Change. “And within the community, after a big debate, the decision was made to go after him.”
Among the activists who did was Jayapal. “Pramila was one of the leaders who most forthrightly said, ‘We’re not about electing Democrats; we’re about representing the rights of our constituents,’ ” Bhargava recalled. “It was the right decision, but it did come with criticism from Democratic politicians and other groups like labor unions, who said, ‘We don’t go after Democrats.’ But she’s always been a movement person first.”
In June 2010, Jayapal and other demonstrators were arrested after blocking an intersection in downtown Seattle to protest Obama’s reluctance to push for immigration reform. She spent the night in jail for the first time in her life. Jayapal and other advocates were now referring to the Democratic president as the “deporter in chief.” They made their case to White House officials and Democratic lawmakers; Bhargava recalls seeing Jayapal get into a heated argument with Schumer over whether Obama should be denounced for the deportations. (Neither Jayapal nor Schumer recalls the encounter.)
Schumer and other Democratic leaders concurred with Obama that the party needed to demonstrate to voters that it cared about border security. Still, the Department of Homeland Security during Obama’s first term seemed more interested in achieving peak numbers — 419,000 deportations in 2012 — than focusing on criminals. As one of the administration’s key staff members on immigration, Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, conceded to me recently: “It’s fair to say they” — meaning Napolitano and Morton — “were too tentative in refining enforcement policy. That really didn’t happen until the second term.”
But, Muñoz maintained, Obama was in fact committed to fixing the country’s immigration system. “And we got no takers, on either the Democratic or Republican side,” she recalled. “This was in 2010, when we’re still in an economic free-fall. And every time Obama went out and said, ‘I want to do something about immigration reform,’ Axelrod’s phone would light up from Democrats: ‘Please make him stop talking about this,’ ” she said, referring to David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president. “They were worried about the 2010 midterms, thinking that any conversation about immigration was a conversation we weren’t having about job security.”
That same year, a new immigration issue emerged that would test the convictions of both parties as well as the electorate. A decade before, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois was inspired by a young constituent, Tereza Lee, a piano prodigy who had arrived in the United States with her undocumented Korean parents when she was 2½. Durbin first drafted the Dream Act, which would provide legal status to people in Lee’s position, in 2001. But it went nowhere until 2010, when he began showing up at the White House with lists of children who were at risk of deportation.
The concept of protecting children from deportation when America was the only country most of them had ever known appeared to enjoy more widespread public support than any previous immigration issue. A 2010 Gallup poll showed that 54 percent of respondents supported passing the Dream Act.
Durbin enlisted an important Democratic ally: Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. As a congressman in 1993, Reid wrote a bill denying citizenship to children born in America to undocumented immigrants. But since then, he had undergone a metamorphosis, albeit a convenient one. Seeing the Latino vote in his home state of Nevada as the key to his re-election victory in 2010, he vowed to bring Durbin’s Dream Act to the floor right after the midterm elections.
Reid did as promised. But as had been the case with the Democrats and Bush in 2006, the Republicans had no interest in handing Obama a victory. Nor did they feel they had to: As with another proposal that polled well, universal background checks for gun purchases, the idea of protecting immigrant children from deportation seemed to enjoy only mile-wide-and-inch-deep support, with no discernible electoral consequence for defying it. Though a version of the Dream Act sponsored by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California passed in the House by eight votes, the Senate bill fell five votes short of overcoming a filibuster, thanks in part to the “no” votes of four Democratic senators.
Leading the opposition was Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who condemned the Dream Act as “a reward for illegal activity.” Sessions, the ranking Republican member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, typically framed the immigration debate as a straightforward matter of enforcing laws on the books, but he also openly stoked white fears, later warning of a scenario in which “we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, nonnative born, since the founding of the republic.”
Immigration advocates expected no less from Sessions. What disappointed them was the president’s failure to rally support for the Dream Act. “It was another case of Obama saying, ‘We’re with you,’ but then spending his political capital elsewhere,” recalls Kevin Appleby. Among Obama’s legislative priorities in the 2010 lame-duck session, “we were last on the list. Then Obama comes out in the Rose Garden and says, ‘My biggest disappointment is that the Dream Act didn’t pass.’ I wanted to throw my shoe at the TV.”
The defeat was an especially embittering moment for the newest protagonists of the immigration movement: the Dreamers themselves, many of them teenagers who were now at risk of being deported to countries they had barely lived in. Thousands of them organized marches, sit-ins, hunger strikes and visits to Capitol Hill. Obama was persuaded to issue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order in 2012, which issued Dreamers a renewable two-year deportation deferral. The recipients, however, were by now under no illusions. “Obama didn’t give DACA to us out of the goodness of his heart,” says Cristina Jiménez Moreta, the daughter of undocumented Ecuadorean immigrants, a founder of the nation’s largest youth immigrant organization, United We Dream, and a 2017 MacArthur fellow. “He had to be pressured and pushed through a two-year campaign. So we know there is nothing they will do on their own unless there is people power creating the conditions where they’re forced to act.”
Trump’s arrival in Washington provided an adrenaline jolt that the immigration movement had not experienced in decades. In short order, the new president made Sessions his attorney general and named as his senior policy adviser Sessions’s former aide Stephen Miller, a staunch immigration opponent who put his stamp on Trump’s policies and speeches on the issue during the campaign. Trump instituted what he called “extreme vetting” of foreign visitors and renewed his pledge to make building a border wall a priority. And he repeatedly refused to condemn white supremacists, even those who violently attacked counterprotesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Va. The immigrant community’s various factions — Dreamers; Latino, Asian and Muslim groups; advocates for women and skilled H-1B visa applicants; naturalized citizens; and asylum seekers — now found a common foe. “Trump in a weird way unified us,” says Jorge L. Barón of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “Whatever divisions there used to be, his attacks have gone through so many people that all of us feel embattled.”
In September 2017, Trump ordered a six-month phaseout of Obama’s DACA executive order. Then in January, he summoned Durbin and Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, to the Oval Office with the intention of signing a deal that would ratify DACA in exchange for funding for the border wall. When Miller and John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, learned of the impending deal, they ushered Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, both immigration hard-liners, to meet with Trump first.
The president’s disposition had changed by the time Durbin and Graham arrived. He characterized Haiti and various African nations as “shithole countries,” wondered aloud why America wasn’t welcoming more Norwegian immigrants and abandoned the legislative compromises that were on the table. “He said he wanted a wall,” Gutiérrez said of the torpedoed DACA deal. “He got me to say O.K. Bernie Sanders, all of them. And then he told us to go [expletive] ourselves.”
The Democrats voted to shut down the federal government over Trump’s rescinded DACA deal. But Schumer, now the Senate minority leader, relented after a mere three days, prompting United We Dream members to stage sit-ins in his Senate office. Durbin privately reminded Cristina Jiménez Moreta that Congress was duty-bound to find legislative solutions.
Jiménez remained unrepentant when I asked her later about the sit-ins. “The days are gone for any Democrat to think that saying ‘I stand with immigrants’ is enough,” she told me. “We expect to see them boldly put forward an alternative to the administration’s mass-deportation agenda. We expect the Democratic approach to be complete opposition to Trump and in complete alignment with what the rest of the country stands behind.”
Jayapal acknowledged recently that “a government shutdown for an immigration issue was pretty unimaginable a few years ago.” Still, she said: “It was too short. If you’re going to do something like that, you’ve got to stick it out. Otherwise, what have you accomplished?”
In the immigration movement from which Jayapal rose to prominence, politicians are broadly seen as forces of intransigence and at times dismaying ignorance. People close to Jayapal told me that she ran for Congress in no small measure because of her disenchantment with the elected officials she had encountered in both the state and national arenas. It has also been her tendency, even going back to her early days as an activist, to assert herself in ways that might rankle those who had been putting in hard work long before she arrived on the scene.
The notion of outside agitator abruptly turned insider is a more familiar figure on the right than the left in Washington these days, and more recognizable to someone from the Tea Party movement than to a consummate legislator like Lofgren or Durbin. Mark Meadows, who is the chairman of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, told me that he considers Jayapal “a worthy adversary” and added: “The Washington power structure likes to pat people like us on the head and say, ‘Those are really good ideas; now wait your turn.’ Well, I’m too old to wait my turn, and she’s too smart to wait hers.”
In September, National Journal reported that Jayapal, who is expected to be the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus next year, intends to take a page from the Freedom Caucus and, in concert with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, form a voting bloc to drag their party aggressively leftward. A senior Democratic leadership aide wrote to me: “I think this is very bad for them. The last thing they want is to be associated with the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus. I also think it is a strategic mistake to be talking about their ‘power’ and not focused on 1) taking back the House and 2) the issues.”
To many Democrats, the opportunity to capitalize on Trump’s unpopularity is one they cannot afford to blow amid ideological infighting. As Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change says: “I tell my liberal friends, right now, the president is winning. Because he won an election on this stuff, and until we can show that a new American majority will actually show up, we’re likely to get more and more of these policies.”
Trump seems convinced that what won him the presidency will remain politically potent this November. At rallies for Republican congressional candidates, the president reliably promotes his long-promised border wall while accusing Democrats of coddling the transnational MS-13 gang. “They’re more interested in taking care of criminals than they are in taking care of you,” he declared at a rally for the Senate hopeful Marsha Blackburn in Nashville in May. More discreetly, Stephen Miller has reportedly pressed Department of Homeland Security lawyers to finalize a new measure that could penalize citizenship and green-card applicants for having lawfully received public assistance like health care subsidies or food stamps, practically inviting Democrats to defend immigrant welfare recipients. Two months ago, Newt Gingrich, an informal adviser to Trump, casually framed the death of Mollie Tibbets, a young woman in Iowa who was allegedly murdered by a Mexican immigrant who the authorities have claimed was in the country illegally, as an electoral bonanza for his party. “If Mollie Tibbets is a household name by October,” Gingrich told a reporter, “Democrats will be in deep trouble.”
A top Republican staff member on Capitol Hill recently shared with me internal Republican polls indicating that in eight swing districts, the No.1 issue among voters’ concerns is immigration. Republican groups have launched attack ads accusing vulnerable Democrats like Matt Cartwright in Pennsylvania, Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota of supporting sanctuary cities. And in the Pennsylvania Senate race, Representative Lou Barletta, a Republican and one of Trump’s earliest supporters, has sent out a fund-raising letter attacking the incumbent, Bob Casey, as one of the Senate’s “‘open borders’ leftists,” while saying of immigration in general, “America is at war.”
But when Republicans used this playbook last year, the politics of immigration proved not quite what they hoped them to be. In the Virginia governor’s race, Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate, adopted Trump’s immigrant-villifying rhetoric and lost to the Democrat, Ralph S. Northam, by nine points. “Gillespie ran the kinds of MS-13 ads that are now running in other parts of the country,” Geoff Garin, who was Northam’s pollster in that race, told me. “We measured a real backlash to that advertising with suburban voters, in part because it connected Gillespie to the anti-immigrant thrust of Trump’s persona.”
Casey has similarly withstood Barletta’s attacks, refusing to run away from his pro-immigration record, and as of this writing enjoys an 18-point lead. Senators Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, two Democratic incumbents from conservative states that were overwhelmingly carried by Trump in 2016, are ahead of their Republican opponents by four and eight points, respectively, despite each having voted for the failed bipartisan immigration-reform legislation in 2013 that conservatives derided as “amnesty.”
The possibility that these seats might stay Democratic could conceivably set the stage for the party to retake the Senate. It could also make 2018 the year when immigration at last emerges as an electorally rewarding issue for Democrats. As Lynda Tran, a founder of the consulting firm 270 Strategies and herself a child of Vietnamese immigrants, said: “Where immigration was never a motivating issue for Democrats the way it’s been for Republicans, that’s starting to shift. One of the great ironies of Trump’s attacks on immigrants and people of color is that the public increasingly sees immigration as a good thing.”
The question, for immigration organizers, is what the Democrats intend to do with the power the midterm elections may bring them. When I put the matter to Jayapal, she replied: “I mean, I have notions about the easy things. To me, that’s the Dream Act. Some reversal of the family-separation policy. The real question, though, is what can we do that dramatically reins in enforcement?” Referring to a bill she helped write last year that would, among other things, replace mandatory detention of every undocumented individual apprehended at the border with greater case-by-case discretion, Jayapal added: “I think there are pieces of my detention-reform bill that could pass both chambers. Trump probably wouldn’t sign it, but it would show what we’re talking about. Maybe some of the pieces around due process and the courts. I think we could get some limits on privatization of immigration detention facilities.”
These did not strike me as “easy things.” Trump had made zero-tolerance enforcement of immigration laws a centerpiece of his presidency. He had also turned down multiple opportunities to legalize Dreamers. Jayapal seemed to think that Democratic control of the House might help sway Trump. “The question is, what would we have to give up for it?” Jayapal mused. “Would he demand a down payment for his wall? Maybe that’s the only way he gets it.”
For that matter, would newly emboldened progressive groups who had just helped return Democrats to the House majority agree to such a trade-off? “The huge issue of the whole debate,” Jayapal conceded, “is how we get people to stand together. Early in the movement, Dreamers were new to advocacy. Some of them were 12 or 14 years old. They understand now, through trial and error, that if they get a deal but their parents get deported, it’s not acceptable. That’s been a challenge for some of the other groups, too. Like the H-1Bs — my people,” she said with a laugh, referring to the fact that Jayapal herself, while awaiting naturalization, had relied on the visa that permits certain specialized foreign workers to stay in the United States. “They’re like, ‘Forget everything else; just put us in some bill!’ I don’t feel any harshness toward them. I know they feel this urgency about their life.” With a barely audible sigh, Jayapal said quietly: “Mostly, it’s hard. It’s really hard.”
She was speaking as the young and precariously documented immigrant she had once been, driving an Aerostar van filled with heart defibrillators through small towns in Indiana, where the locals often inquired as to where the dark-skinned saleswoman was from. But her words were also those of a policymaker chasing a frustratingly elusive consensus.
In mid-August, I followed Jayapal through a typical day of talking to her constituents, a fast-moving schedule that included consoling a young Latino house painter who had taken refuge in a Seattle church to avoid deportation and accompanying a Mexican dance instructor and his family to the regional headquarters of ICE to request a stay in his deportation proceedings. The congresswoman had also spent much of her morning with 15 local immigration advocates. Many of them had known Jayapal for years; one had been arrested with her while protesting Obama’s deportation policies back in 2010. “I’d love to hear what you all are seeing on the ground,” she began, “but also to start to think about what next year looks like, should we take back the House. We haven’t been able to put forward a proactive immigration policy — we’ve been so reactive. So we need to show what our strategy is. We need to think about what an immigration policy looks like.”
One by one, they offered an exhausting litany of concerns. Stephen Miller was laying siege to the refugee-resettlement program. H-1B visa acceptance rates had slowed to a crawl. Delays for some naturalization applicants now reached five years. Immigrants were fearful about what might happen to them if they truthfully answered the question about their citizenship on the coming census form. The Customs and Border Protection office in Spokane appeared to be extending its search-and-seizure rights beyond the 100-mile limit prescribed by federal law. But, as Jayapal had observed, these concerns were reactions to Trump’s war on immigration. None of the activists expressed larger thoughts about what she termed “the moral imagination around immigration.” They were, as she sympathetically put it, “mired in the latest crisis.”
Back in Washington, on the morning of Sept. 26, Jayapal met with representatives from 11 of the nation’s most influential immigration rights advocates — among them, United We Dream, the A.C.L.U., the Center for Community Change and the organization Jayapal had founded, OneAmerica. They discussed 35 pieces of pending legislation that could build toward an immigration agenda for the next two years. Three of the bills — the Dream Act, a measure to guarantee automatic citizenship to certain adoptees and a series of steps intended to reduce the backlog of immigration cases — the group believed could pass the House and the Senate and be signed into law by Trump. Nineteen bills, they figured, could pass only the House. Twelve would require changes to achieve any hope of passage. And one, relating to minimizing bail for detainees, they agreed was “unlikely to pass, but important for movement building.”
That a first-term congresswoman was presiding over such a gathering, before her party had retaken even one chamber of Congress, could be seen as presumptuous. Then again, House Republicans spent eight years perfecting their condemnations of Obamacare while giving little thought to what should replace it; now millions of Americans had lost their health care, and those same Republicans were at pains to explain their negligence to voters. Jayapal was not going to endure a similar fiasco.
It was the kind of substantive, forward-thinking meeting Jayapal had been craving. No sooner did she leave it, however, than there was yet another fire to put out. The House was set to vote at 1:30 that afternoon on a series of measures under “closed rule,” in which no amendments could be offered. Among them was a resolution offered by Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader.
Like his July countermeasure to support ICE, this new resolution bore all the telltale imprints of an election-year ploy. Taking note of the fact that the City of San Francisco permits undocumented residents to vote in local school board elections, the resolution declared that “allowing illegal immigrants the right to vote devalues the franchise and diminishes the voting power of United States citizens.” McCarthy’s resolution seemed designed to put Democrats in a corner. Either they would be voting against the liberal policy of a city that happened to be represented by Nancy Pelosi, or they would be voting to let undocumented immigrants cast ballots in an American election.
Just before the vote, I asked Luis Gutiérrez what he intended to do. “I’m gonna tell them to kiss my Puerto Rican ass,” he replied. But, he acknowledged, the bill was a wily strategic move. The Democrats had complained for months about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election; now they were ushering illegal immigrants into the polling booths? “The trap has been sprung,” he said. “It’s like ‘I Love Lucy’: We’ve got some ’splaining to do. Which is what the Republicans want. What’s the adage? If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
Gutiérrez is retiring in January after 24 years in the House. Like Jayapal, he entered Congress with a reputation as a rabble-rouser; he will exit it with a reputation as a patient negotiator. Frank Sharry speaks of Jayapal as “the next Luis.” But Jayapal didn’t share Gutiérrez’s belief that Democrats owed anyone an explanation for their votes on McCarthy’s resolution. “They’re scared,” she said of the Republicans. “We should just make it clear: We support immigrants, this proposition is ludicrous and move on. That’s a better approach than trying to hew to the old method of trying to make everyone feel comfortable.”
At about 11 that evening, she was home in her apartment near the Capitol when her legislative director emailed her the roll-call vote for McCarthy’s resolution. The numbers stunned her. Only 70 of her Democratic colleagues, including Gutiérrez, had joined her in voting against it. An additional 69 had voted “present.” Fully 49 — about one-fourth of the Democratic caucus — had voted for it.
“This is crazy,” Jayapal emailed me shortly after the vote. Maybe 10 or 12 of her compatriots were in districts challenging enough to warrant voting with the Republicans. But 49? There was so much fear inside her caucus — and outside, so much frustration from her organizer friends. Somehow Jayapal would have to navigate both sides — agitating and legislating, crossing the border back and forth, somberly aware that when it came to immigration issues, even an easy vote felt to some like a perilous journey, destination unknown.