In mid-August, I followed Jayapal through a typical day of talking to her constituents, a fast-moving schedule that included consoling a young Latino house painter who had taken refuge in a Seattle church to avoid deportation and accompanying a Mexican dance instructor and his family to the regional headquarters of ICE to request a stay in his deportation proceedings. The congresswoman had also spent much of her morning with 15 local immigration advocates. Many of them had known Jayapal for years; one had been arrested with her while protesting Obama’s deportation policies back in 2010. “I’d love to hear what you all are seeing on the ground,” she began, “but also to start to think about what next year looks like, should we take back the House. We haven’t been able to put forward a proactive immigration policy — we’ve been so reactive. So we need to show what our strategy is. We need to think about what an immigration policy looks like.”
One by one, they offered an exhausting litany of concerns. Stephen Miller was laying siege to the refugee-resettlement program. H-1B visa acceptance rates had slowed to a crawl. Delays for some naturalization applicants now reached five years. Immigrants were fearful about what might happen to them if they truthfully answered the question about their citizenship on the coming census form. The Customs and Border Protection office in Spokane appeared to be extending its search-and-seizure rights beyond the 100-mile limit prescribed by federal law. But, as Jayapal had observed, these concerns were reactions to Trump’s war on immigration. None of the activists expressed larger thoughts about what she termed “the moral imagination around immigration.” They were, as she sympathetically put it, “mired in the latest crisis.”
Back in Washington, on the morning of Sept. 26, Jayapal met with representatives from 11 of the nation’s most influential immigration rights advocates — among them, United We Dream, the A.C.L.U., the Center for Community Change and the organization Jayapal had founded, OneAmerica. They discussed 35 pieces of pending legislation that could build toward an immigration agenda for the next two years. Three of the bills — the Dream Act, a measure to guarantee automatic citizenship to certain adoptees and a series of steps intended to reduce the backlog of immigration cases — the group believed could pass the House and the Senate and be signed into law by Trump. Nineteen bills, they figured, could pass only the House. Twelve would require changes to achieve any hope of passage. And one, relating to minimizing bail for detainees, they agreed was “unlikely to pass, but important for movement building.”
That a first-term congresswoman was presiding over such a gathering, before her party had retaken even one chamber of Congress, could be seen as presumptuous. Then again, House Republicans spent eight years perfecting their condemnations of Obamacare while giving little thought to what should replace it; now millions of Americans had lost their health care, and those same Republicans were at pains to explain their negligence to voters. Jayapal was not going to endure a similar fiasco.
It was the kind of substantive, forward-thinking meeting Jayapal had been craving. No sooner did she leave it, however, than there was yet another fire to put out. The House was set to vote at 1:30 that afternoon on a series of measures under “closed rule,” in which no amendments could be offered. Among them was a resolution offered by Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader.
Like his July countermeasure to support ICE, this new resolution bore all the telltale imprints of an election-year ploy. Taking note of the fact that the City of San Francisco permits undocumented residents to vote in local school board elections, the resolution declared that “allowing illegal immigrants the right to vote devalues the franchise and diminishes the voting power of United States citizens.” McCarthy’s resolution seemed designed to put Democrats in a corner. Either they would be voting against the liberal policy of a city that happened to be represented by Nancy Pelosi, or they would be voting to let undocumented immigrants cast ballots in an American election.
Just before the vote, I asked Luis Gutiérrez what he intended to do. “I’m gonna tell them to kiss my Puerto Rican ass,” he replied. But, he acknowledged, the bill was a wily strategic move. The Democrats had complained for months about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election; now they were ushering illegal immigrants into the polling booths? “The trap has been sprung,” he said. “It’s like ‘I Love Lucy’: We’ve got some ’splaining to do. Which is what the Republicans want. What’s the adage? If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
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