Soon after announcing the contours of a deal with Donald Trump to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation, Republican Nancy Pelosi appeared on her home turf of San Francisco to tout Democrats’ efforts toward an immigration accord.
Instead of getting plaudits, she got lambasted.
Protesters shouted down Ms Pelosi, accusing her of selling out the wider world of immigrants by seeking to cut a deal with Mr Trump. A frustrated Ms Pelosi scolded the demonstrators, and in the aftermath critics expressed dismay at the spectacle of pro-immigrant activists blasting a powerful political ally who shares their goal of shielding immigrants who were brought to America as children and now live there illegally.
“I wish they would channel some of that energy into the Republican districts so we can pass the DREAM act”, Ms Pelosi told reporters afterward, referring to a bill that would prevent deportations of young immigrants who are in the country illegally and have not committed serious crimes. “That’s an area of disagreement that we have in terms of tactic”, she added.
But the confrontation reflected the conviction among a new generation of activists that public pressure on Democrats prodded Barack Obama to create the program Ms Pelosi is now striving to preserve. It also illuminates the forces tugging at Democratic leaders as they seek to revive immigration talks with Mr Trump, who inspires deep animus and distrust in their base.
“Immigrant youth has been at the forefront protesting, heckling, and carrying out direct actions against Obama and the Democratic Party, regardless of the unpopularity of such tactics”, Sandy Valenciano, who was among those protesting against Ms Pelosi, wrote in an op-ed, warning that “the Democratic Party plays into Trump’s tactics while pretending to put up a fight”.
“DACA was achieved through fearless organising and resistance by undocumented people”, Ms Valenciano wrote, referring to a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that allowed immigrants under a certain age to secure deportation reprieves and work authorisation. Initiated by Barack Obama, the program is set to lapse barring congressional action after Mr Trump said he would not extend it.
Immigrant activists who came of age during the Obama era, galvanised by a record-setting wave of deportations and accustomed to publicly proclaiming their lack of status, acquired experience with political organising and built a national network.
Edwin Carmona-Cruz, development director for La Raza Centro Legal, told The Independent: “These people are sophisticated activists. They bring national media attention to certain subjects.”
They are emboldened by the experience with public advocacy but clear-eyed about the stakes after Mr Obama oversaw an unprecedented number of deportations, widely seen as part of an unsuccessful political strategy to marshal Republican support for immigration reform. Protesters disrupted Ms Pelosi on Monday by chanting “We are not your bargaining chip!”
“We always get a response of ‘our hands are tied, there’s nothing we can do’”, said Blanca Vazquez, a lead organiser for the Immigrant Youth Coalition who helped plan the protest and crossed the border when she was six months old. “Now more than ever it’s needed for us to be more bold, to come out of the shadows even more than before.”
Few immigrant advocates trust Mr Trump, who built his campaign on animosity toward the foreign-born and has sought to slash immigration levels and bar refugees. While Ms Pelosi and other top Democrats have thrown their support behind a “clean” immigration bill that reestablishes legal safeguards for young immigrants without funding Mr Trump’s border wall, Ms Vazquez and others are wary of a compromise that fortifies border security and leads to more deportations.
Fearful of “the horrible repercussions of a DREAM act that includes enforcement, more border security, a wall,” Ms Vazquez told The Independent, “the goal was to shift the narrative to how fearful it was and the possibility of what more resources for enforcement and border security would mean for older immigrants”.
Since news emerged that Mr Trump was talking to Democrats about extending DACA, the President has faced a revolt from a base that rallied behind his nativist message. Under Mr Obama, frustration mounted among restive allies who believed the President was bolstering immigration enforcement but squandering an opportunity for a wider compromise.
As the prospects of an immigration bill flagged and the rate of deportations soared, activists increasingly turned to organising public actions and challenging elected officials. The head of National Council of La Raza, a prominent immigrant rights organisation that has since been renamed Unidos, made headlines for labelling Mr Obama the nation’s “deporter-in-chief”.
When the Democratic president eventually launched DACA, many advocates believed their strategy of assailing Democratic elected officials had been vindicated. Mr Obama followed up with an initiative, since halted in court, that sought to extend preferred status to immigrants who were in America illegally but had children with legal status.
Cecilia Muñoz, who shaped immigration policy as Mr Obama’s domestic policy advisor, rejected the explanation that DACA was the “result of pressure”. She said the program followed a gradual shift in immigration priorities that focused personnel and resources on immigrants who had compiled serious criminal records, sparing immigrants who had avoided legal trouble and forged strong community and family ties.
“The people who believe that DACA happened because they shouted at President Obama are simply wrong,” Ms Muñoz told The Independent. “A strategy based on yelling at your friends in the hope that they will do what you want is not a strategy. If Leader Pelosi sticks with it, which I expect that she will, it will be because she knows it's the right thing to do, and she will do it despite having been yelled at by people who don't have a strategy beyond shouting at her.”
The denunciation of Mr Obama was a “lightning rod moment in terms of crystallising a long road of advocacy”, said Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro of Unidos, but she argued that DACA also arose out of both direct action and more policy advocacy. She said the focus now should be on Republican leaders who hold sway over any immigration measure’s fate.
“In terms of bringing about a lasting measure of relief for Dreamers what we need is legislation, and I think the two people holding the levers who could potentially block that path are Republican leaders who have the power to bring this to a vote or could refuse to do so”, Ms Martínez-de-Castro said.
Immigration advocacy organisations have been chipping away, enlisting supportive elected officials and immigrants to urge Congress into action. Civil disobedience has played a role as well, with three Democratic members of Congress arrested for blocking traffic outside of Trump Tower in protest of Mr Trump’s move to let DACA sunset. And it seems likely that more elected officials will be talking over protesters.
“The strategy is still the same”, Ms Vazquez said. “If we’re not being heard when we’re amicable then we’re going to be as vocal as possible in the most direct way”.