Democrats in Congress think they can finally beat Donald Trump on immigration.
Senior Democrats this week leaped into the debate over border policy — livestreaming their trips to detention facilities, calling for the ouster of Department of Homeland Security officials and mobilizing the party around “a battle cry to protect the children.”
Story Continued Below
It’s a stark shift for Democratic leaders who have largely tried to avoid immigration, an issue that has divided their party and which Trump has used as a political bludgeon.
Now, Democrats are intentionally seeking out high-profile fights with Trump over immigration policy — eager to take the offensive as Republicans have gone largely silent amid a dizzying array of scandals within DHS and a public outraged by mistreatment of migrants at detention centers.
“I do think the intensity and the pressure have ramped up,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said of his caucus’ attempts to seize the high ground from the GOP on immigration.
“The American people want us to deal with the issues of migration and immigration, and we intend to do that,” Castro added in an interview.
Democrats have some data to back up their confidence: At a closed-door caucus meeting last week, officials hired by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shared results of a recent poll in battleground districts that showed Democrats holding a significant advantage over Republicans when it comes to immigration messaging.
The takeaway, according to multiple Democrats in the room, is that they don’t have to back down from immigration fights, even in some of the party’s toughest districts.
“This is one where even people I know who are anti-choice voters are always appalled by what’s happening with separating families at the border,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview. “This isn’t a political winner for the president. Most people look at this and are rather repulsed by his actions.”
In private this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have vowed to continue ramping up their response to the migrant crisis, with plans to demand more protections for those detained — possibly through an upcoming spending bill, according to multiple lawmakers. There have also been preliminary discussions of a Democratic leadership trip to the border for surprise inspections of facilities, one of those lawmakers said.
“What we have witnessed is unconscionable disrespect for the dignity and worth of God’s children,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to her caucus this week, noting her fellow Democrats’ trips to the border as well as a “vile” Facebook group of current and former border officers who made vulgar statements about migrants and Hispanic lawmakers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
Vulnerable Democrats aren’t shying away from the issue either. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) is among several freshman Democrats in competitive districts who have made plans to travel to the border this month.
“I strongly believe in border security, and I believe that our immigration system is broken and requires a major overhaul,” Slotkin said in a statement announcing her planned trip. “But let me be clear: There is no rationale that excuses how our government is treating the migrants, in particular the migrant children, currently in its care.”
Trump has ensured the immigration debate has remained on the front burner, with his demands to build a border wall, his push for a so-called Muslim ban and his threats against sanctuary cities.
The influx of migrants at the border recently reached a crisis point, with DHS at times unable to manage the highest number of crossings in roughly a decade.
House Democrats struggled with how to respond to Trump’s request for billions to deal with the surge of migrants, with the caucus fracturing and Pelosi dealt a rare legislative defeat last week on the spending package.
This week, the party seized on the litany of scandals. Democrats in the House launched a formal probe of the secret Facebook group within hours of its emergence Monday.
The next day, DHS’s own watchdog issued a damning report that found children packed into overcrowded detention facilities without a place to sleep. Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Katherine Clark, who visited a facility in Florida, described agency practices as “cold and callous.”
By Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called for the firing of top brass at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, saying the horrific conditions at facilities and the lewd posts in the Facebook group showed the agency’s “toxic” culture.
“Internal investigations aren’t enough,” Schumer said in a statement. “Too much of CBP has been an out of control agency for too long and it must be reined in immediately.”
The broadside from Schumer comes days after the New York Democrat became the target of progressive ire, after he and other Senate Democrats sided with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over House Democrats in the border funding dispute.
House Democrats are also eager to turn the page and have become more aggressive in their demands for information and oversight of the Trump administration.
On Wednesday, a half-dozen senior Democrats sent a letter to the Trump administration calling on officials to end a much-criticized data-sharing policy that allows DHS to go after unauthorized immigrants already living in the U.S. because they submitted their personal information in the process of becoming sponsors for unaccompanied children.
“This policy has led to cruel outcomes for children and sponsors and is unnecessary to secure the homeland. We urge you to rescind it immediately,” said the lawmakers, which included four committee chairs and two subcommittee chairs.
Immigration is still a vexing political issue for Democrats, with major divides over whether to rein in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or abolish ICE altogether. And several lawmakers and aides have acknowledged the party has struggled in the past to articulate its immigration vision, particularly when they’re attempting to respond to Trump’s bombastic rhetoric.
But Democrats believe they can change the debate, and even win, when it revolves around water, hygiene and sanitation for children, some of whom are dying on the border.
The focus on humane conditions for migrants is far different from the threat of MS-13 gang members and caravans that dominated Trump’s Twitter feed during the midterm elections. For much of that campaign cycle, Democrats choose to ignore the issue — and it worked.
But Democrats may be inclined to go on the offensive in the next election, with early polling commissioned by the Democratic campaign arm showing voters strongly favor Democratic messages on the immigration over GOP rhetoric.
The polling, which was commissioned by the DCCC and conducted by an outside group, was presented to members last week, just as the national debate over border detention facilities began to escalate. The DCCC declined to share details of the polling for publication.
“We know from our data that Democrats can win this argument,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with the polling, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Democrats’ message is best, the strategist said, when the focus is on comprehensive immigration reform, including improved security and a pathway to citizenship for people who “play by the rules.”
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said Trump’s hard-line approach to immigration is now backfiring for the president and the GOP.
“I think the president has overplayed his hand,” Khanna said in an interview. “By overreaching in a way that has been embarrassing to many Americans, he is actually losing the immigration debate.”