Trump's Harshest Opponents Are Coming To Terms With The Idea That He Could Pass What Obama Couldn't
"I feel like I'm in the twilight zone."
President Trump's staunchest critics — particularly those who have worked to get the DREAM Act passed into law — are now worried about what will happen if a man they revile is able to champion a bipartisan immigration deal and take credit for something that's been touted by Democrats and some Republicans for years.
As they trickled out of last Wednesday's Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala — affectionately known as "Latino prom" — frustrated members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were flummoxed by the news that Trump and Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi had struck the broad parameters of a deal to protect 800,000 young, undocumented immigrants at risk of eventual deportation after Trump's decision to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
With so many Latino Democrats milling about, the full gamut of reactions to the breaking news was on display. Don't trust Trump, was the message from many. Another common sentiment: Chuck and Nancy, as Trump calls the Democratic leaders, better be careful with what they give away. And there was cautious optimism that this legislative effort might be different than the failed ones of the past.
Amid the photos in front of a step and repeat, and the throng of black-tie attendees, one dazed, influential Latino operative said aloud, almost to see how foreign the words sounded: "What if Trump actually passes the DREAM Act?"
Veteran immigration advocates know how far a deal is from reality, especially on something like the DREAM Act, which would give young undocumented immigrants a route to citizenship. Any loose agreement between Trump and Democrats can be swiftly blown to bits by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the conservative House Freedom Caucus, or even White House adviser Stephen Miller, who is said to be working to sabotage prospects of a deal in behind the scenes conversations with congressional Republicans.
But longtime Trump opponents in and out of Congress are increasingly whispering about what it would mean if the man who launched his candidacy by calling Mexicans criminals and rapists actually passed permanent legislative protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants.
"I feel like I'm in the twilight zone," said Republican strategist and CNN commentator, Ana Navarro, a high-profile and frequent Trump basher, of her reaction the morning after Trump's dinner with Democrats. "I thought I was in the midst of some magic mushroom-induced, psychedelic dream when I woke up at 6 AM."
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, meanwhile, have been hesitant to say anything on the record, fearful of torpedoing something so surreal.
But they privately stewed when news of a broad deal leaked out, because they said they had told Pelosi just the day before not to make a deal with Trump without consulting them and not to tie DACA protections to border security — both of which she would go on to do.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez told BuzzFeed News it would be great to put 800,000 DACA recipients or 2 million or so DREAMers in a safe place.
"Then the next day we fight for their moms and dads, the refugees who need protection, the people whose [temporary protected status] might be cut off, the immigrant communities that are losing people to Trump’s deportation agenda today and every day," he said. "I welcome openness to the Dream Act, if it is real, but let's not start patting Trump on the back yet."
There is also real concern about what it could mean to work with Trump to grant him something so far unheard of during his administration: a signature legislative victory.
In the first eight months of his presidency, Trump has failed to shepherd legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare through Congress, his administration has pushed back its deadline for tax reform legislation, and a Trump-promise major infrastructure package still seems — at best — a ways away.
His presidency is in need of a legislative win, with time running down on his first year in office. Against virtually all predictions in the aftermath of last year's election, it appears that victory could come on protections for undocumented immigrants, something Barack Obama could only achieve through executive action during his own presidency.
But Navarro acknowledged Trump has a unique ability to get an immigration deal passed, in part because he has the trust of immigration-skeptics in his base. But should immigration activists be willing to give Trump a signature victory if he's able to pass legislation to protect young immigrants who were brought to the country as children, known as DREAMers?
"Everybody should be giving the guy credit, we all need to be clapping as loudly as we can if we want DACA, because positive praise and reaffirmation feeds Donald Trump's ego and that’s a good thing for us," Navarro said.
Democrats and longtime immigration activists disagree.
They caution that the ink isn't even dry on what is basically a handshake agreement between Trump and Democratic leaders, which is built around enshrining DACA's protections in exchange for increased border security funding. But even if something moves forward before DACA formally expires in March, they argue the victory wouldn't be Trump's.
"Progressives should consider this an unmitigated victory," said Hillary Clinton's former press secretary Brian Fallon, who now serves as a senior adviser for Priorities USA. "It would be affirmation of the resistance movement akin to beating back the health care repeal and a tribute to activists who mobilized, a deal that is 100% what Democrats have been demanding — enacting the DREAM Act into law, without compromising on border wall funding."
DACA recipients and immigration activists also worry that Democrats may be willing to give too much away on security for the border, which they feel is already overly militarized, and on interior enforcement, which they feel will only be further weaponized to hurt their communities.
Activists are already showing their willingness to take out that concern on Democrats, even those who seem to be working to find a path to re-establishing DACA protections. DREAMers from the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance hijacked a Pelosi press conference this week, demanding they not be used a bargaining chip and calling for a "clean" DREAM Act to be passed without border security considerations.
Erika Andiola, a DACA recipient and immigration leader who shared video of the protest on social media, said the goal is to push Democrats not to give in too much to Republican demands. But she told BuzzFeed News that she'd gladly accept a plan for DREAMers, even if it comes from a man she has staunchly opposed for months.
"It doesn’t matter whether it’s signed by Trump, Obama or Bush," she said. "It's never about the party, it's about pushing people to do right thing. It doesn’t mean he’s a hero on progressive values, just that on this specific issue it would help a lot people."
Cristina Jimenez, the executive director of United We Dream (UWD), also cast aside the idea that passing protections for DREAMers would amount to a victory for Trump.
"Even in the most aggressive administration we have experienced, a toxic and racist environment with white supremacist ideologies and agendas driving our government, it would be a huge testament to undocumented folks pushing for action," she said.
Like other activists, she pointed to health care as a parallel for the immigration fight, where repeal efforts have so far been hampered by public outcry against Republican bills, even though Republicans hold all chambers of government.
"People across the country mobilized and put pressure on members of Congress," she said. "I don’t think the White House or Congress was doing it because of the soft spot in their heart."
Janet Murguia, the president of UnidosUS, formerly known as the National Council of La Raza, is no stranger herself to calling out presidents, as she did when she called Obama the "deporter-in-chief." But she didn't take the chance to brushback Trump over the latest negotiations, instead saying it is imperative to achieve a meaningful solution.
"This isn’t a game, and these DREAMers are not political pawns," she said. "They're real people with real lives."
Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who famously came out as undocumented in a New York Times op-ed and founded immigration advocacy organization Define American, said passage of legislation by Trump would be "an act of love," echoing Jeb Bush's words from the presidential campaign on why parents bring their children to the United States. But he said the issue shouldn't end there.
"The real question we must ask," he said, "is what are we going to do with these young people, these everyday Americans who are not included in the current fight? Will the president fight for them?”
And even if Trump does secure a win, he shouldn't expect a swell of overall support from the Hispanic community.
"The dye has been cast with respect to Trump and Latinos, especially young Latinos," said Leslie Sanchez, a GOP strategist who has worked on conservative and Hispanic issues for decades and has recently conducted focus groups on taxes and DACA. "Young people feel it's too little, too late and are going to credit Democrats with making reforms."
Democrats note it's about taking what you can get in a political environment where even if DREAMers were protected, deportations of other groups would continue at a steady clip. They know Trump would get credit, and that he would find it delicious that he could pass something Obama could not. But they say they have to at least try to come to a deal with the self-professed deal artist.
"When someone like Trump is willing to cave and give you a deal on your terms, it would be foolish to turn it down for political reasons," Fallon said.