How Immigration Is Already Driving the 2020 Democratic Race

The Senate vote to reopen government and the liberal backlash were a preview of what’s to come in the fierce presidential primary contest.

A protest in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals outside the office of Sen. Marco Rubio in Doral, Fla., on Monday
AP Photo/Lynne Sladky
Hanna Trudo
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Hanna Trudo
Jan. 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

Years away from 2020, Democratic strategists and activists say immigration has the potential to drive the party’s presidential primary debate toward the demands of the base—and away from any possible compromise.

An early glimpse of that dynamic came Monday, when half a dozen presidential hopefuls in the Senate voted to keep the government closed over an ongoing immigration-policy debate. They were cheered on by many liberal activists, who were upset that party leaders were willing to cut a deal with the GOP.

“Will the Democrats stick to their guns?” asked Stephen Legomsky, former chief counsel of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration. “Those who do, I think, will be rewarded in a Democratic primary.”

Emboldened by President Trump’s changing rhetoric on his signature issue, Democrats from all corners of government are engaging early on what could be the pivotal debate of the 2020 race.

On Thursday evening, Trump proposed giving 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” a pathway to citizenship in return for $25 billion in funding for a border wall and other immigration cuts.

The administration’s move comes on the heels of a three-day government shutdown, when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pushed forward a deal with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reopen the government without an agreement on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients, a disappointing outcome to some of the Senate’s most likely 2020 contenders.

Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Chris Murphy of Connecticut voted against reopening the government, while Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota notably broke with the potential 2020 pack by voting to turn on the lights.

“Haggling over the number of families to break apart in exchange for a policy that 86 percent of Americans already support is not a good look for 2020 aspirants,” said Ben Wikler, Washington director at

“It’s not enough to make vague promises,” added Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the ACLU. “There will be a significant amount of accountability.”

Progressive activists and officials alike have talked up the stand-your-ground approach since the shutdown debate roiled leaders in Washington. Schumer’s compromise has been widely panned.

In town for a mayoral conference, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, touted as a future presidential contender in the Democratic Party’s era of soul-searching, offered some advice Thursday for Senate Democrats.

“They should keep their leverage with the continuing resolution,” he told reporters, arguing that senators should play hardball by indicating to Republicans that “‘if you don’t live up to your word, we have something we can bring forward to shut things down.’”

Garcetti was on message addressing a bipartisan group of mayors about urban immigration challenges. He highlighted DACA and worked in a jab at Trump, referencing the detrimental “whims and winds of Washington,” without mentioning the president by name.

The timing was opportune. Garcetti had said early on that he would not attend a Wednesday White House meeting with Trump that fellow mayors Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans and Bill de Blasio of New York City, also possible 2020 contenders, later said they would also boycott following a Justice Department crackdown on sanctuary cities.

“We see ever-changing political moments—even yesterday—sometimes minutes before we come together to talk about a proactive agenda, that seeks to maybe derail us,” Garcetti said, alluding again to the president.

While White House officials are billing Trump’s Thursday proposal as a “compromise position,” Democrats outside of Washington have spent the past several days playing offense and further distancing themselves from Republicans.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made news ahead of other state executives possibly angling for 2020 by vowing to keep the Statue of Liberty open during the shutdown, expressing defiance using a symbol of America’s immigrant roots. And he announced plans to include Dreamers in his free-college-tuition policy in New York, doubly engaging on issues that appeal to the progressive wing of the party.

“If you’re outside the Senate, you can take a fairly generic philosophical position and you don’t have to make trade-offs,” Legomsky said about the potential upside of a governor’s involvement on immigration.

Outside of the fray of government, Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer, another potential presidential aspirant who’s poured millions into Trump-impeachment efforts, announced he would no longer fund the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee after the vote to reopen the government.

“I don’t have a litmus test on any one thing, but I do have a litmus test for elected officials standing on principle and doing the right thing, looked at holistically,” Steyer said. “After the DACA vote, I have decided not to give anything to the national party committees.”

While Steyer had already hit contribution limits allowed for the DSCC and DCCC, the billionaire activist’s move could still affect the DNC, the party’s main political apparatus.

And in a Democratic primary likely to include many contenders who’ve taken similarly liberal approaches to immigration—in alignment with the DNC’s official platform—those hopefuls’ symbolic maneuvering now could be even more crucial later on, some strategists say.

“Both turnout and actual votes will be heavily affected by what stance a candidate has taken on DACA,” Legomsky predicted. “Democrats who give up on this cause too early will do so at their own peril.”

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