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A Democratic Wave In Congress Could Change Immigration Policy

Mounted Border Patrol agents ride along a newly fortified border wall structure in Calexico, Calif. Funding for the border wall is one of a number of administration priorities that may face challenges if the Democrats flip the House.
Gregory Bull
Mounted Border Patrol agents ride along a newly fortified border wall structure in Calexico, Calif. Funding for the border wall is one of a number of administration priorities that may face challenges if the Democrats flip the House.

With days to go before the midterm elections, President Trump has tried time and again to turn the nation's attention to immigration with headline-grabbing moves.

On Monday, Trump announced the deployment of thousands of active-duty troops to the Southwest border. On Tuesday, he said he's considering an end-run around the constitutional right to citizenship for those born on U.S. soil.

On Wednesday, the president tweeted an inflammatory ad comparing migrants in the caravan to a convicted cop killer who entered the U.S. illegally several years ago. And on Thursday, Trump called for new limits on asylum claims.

Trump is trying to fire up his base — Republican voters frequently cite immigration as a top concern — as the GOP tries to retain control of the House and Senate.

With control of the White House and Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, Trump has ushered in sweeping changes to immigration policy. A "blue wave" at the polls could change the shape of the immigration debate.

At the moment, pollsters are predicting that Democrats are likely to retake the House but not the Senate. That could give Democrats a degree of power they haven't wielded in years.

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a D.C.-based immigration advocacy group, predicted Democrats would pursue "an aggressive oversight agenda." He said there's "no doubt" they would use congressional committees to investigate who is responsible for the Trump administration's family separation policy, which drew international outrage.

It was one of several policy changes that Trump made through executive order or administrative rule-making. A Democratic-controlled House couldn't overturn the president's actions, but it could bring more scrutiny.

"The main thing that changes is that the Democrats will have the power to issue subpoenas and to conduct investigations," said Sharry, whose group has been highly critical of Trump.

A number of Trump's immigration policies have been controversial. He imposed a travel ban on immigrants from mainly Muslim countries, as well as North Korea and Venezuela. He tried to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, ending protections for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants brought here as children. That issue is still being litigated in the courts. And Trump has moved to strip Temporary Protected Status, TPS, from about 300,000 immigrants from seven different countries.

Trump also wants to build a wall on the southern border. Congress has yet to fully fund the $25 billion project, and a Democratic-controlled House could try to block Trump's spending priorities on immigration.

Trump's best chance for getting a border wall appropriation may be during the lame duck session after the election, especially if Democrats are set to take over in January.

But first, House Republicans, who are divided over spending, would have to overcome those differences. Or, Trump could try to cut a deal with Democrats by agreeing to protect some 700,000 DACA recipients and several hundred thousand more "DREAMers" who were never covered by that program.

"I think the president would be happy to trade DACA or even expanded DACA for up to 2 million people for actual appropriation of the money for the wall," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates limits on both legal and illegal immigration.

"The president, I think, would take that in a minute," he said.

But such a deal — border wall funding for protecting DREAMers from deportation — has failed once before. And aides from both parties say a continued standoff over immigration is likely to lead to a partial government shutdown at the end of the year.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she would trade "nothing" with Trump to help him get the wall. Pelosi is the odds-on favorite to be House speaker if the Democrats prevail.

"It happens to be like a manhood issue for the president, building a wall, and I'm not interested in that," Pelosi said in remarks at Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics in early October.

Pelosi said protecting DREAMers is a legislative priority and Democrats do support stronger border security measures. But the wall, she said, "is probably the worst way to protect the border."

Moreover, any immigration deal would have to get through the Senate.

"If the Republicans hold onto the Senate, I don't see a DACA bill getting through there unless there are a lot of enforcement provisions and possibly some reforms to legal immigration," said Chris Chmielenski, deputy director of Numbers USA, which bills itself as the nation's largest grassroots immigration reduction organization.

There's one thing activists on both sides of the immigration debate agree on: It's hard to predict Trump.

"I think at the end of the day the X factor in all this is really the administration," said Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum, a nonpartisan immigration advocacy group.

"Is the president going to be in a state of mind to actually want to reach a compromise? There has been very little, if any, evidence that Trump, quite frankly, wants to compromise with Democrats or even his own Republican Party on the question of immigration," Noorani said.

With the president having thrown in with immigration hard-liners, some predict a further stalemate in Congress over any immigration legislation.

"We have for too long been in an environment where people are throwing invectives at each other and claiming that's an immigration debate," said Cecilia Munoz of the New America Foundation. She served as domestic policy director in the Obama administration.

"I don't think that a change in parties in control of one or two bodies of the U.S. Congress is enough necessarily to get us to a more thoughtful debate."

And if Republicans retain control of the House and Senate, that could embolden the president by confirming that his campaign strategy worked.

But even immigration restrictionists say much would depend on the marginof victory by various Republicans. Republican candidates in competitive races are split between those who support Trump's crackdown and immigration limits and those who warn that the president has gone too far, says Chmielenski.

"So one side could increase their strength within the caucus, but only if they win a larger share of the seats up for grabs," he said. "If the toss-up districts go evenly between two sides, then I don't think it'll have much of an impact."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.