The Border Crisis Is Fracturing the Democratic Party

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“If you improve the conditions of a child in a cage, the child is still in a cage!” said Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) at Netroots Nation.

PHILADELPHIA—This year’s Netroots Nation convention was held hundreds of miles from the southern border. And yet most attendees had the border on their minds over the weekend. Two weeks of images coming from detention camps in Texas, including a visit from Vice President Mike Pence, along with the commencement of ICE raids in large cities, have crystallized what represents the primary moral crisis of the Trump presidency.

Netroots attendees massed in the streets at a noontime Friday protest and an evening vigil to close the camps. After sessions in the main hall, a voice-over read out descriptions of legal rights for undocumented people threatened by ICE removal. A (somewhat muted) protest against Elizabeth Warren concerned not foreign policy or health care, but immigration, an issue she had just released a plan on two days before. The plan includes a special Justice Department task force that would investigate the Trump administration’s violations of law at the border. Other speakers demanded the closure of a nearby family detention facility in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Talk of border cruelty dominated a session with three-quarters of the “squad”: progressive House freshmen Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN), alongside colleague Deb Haaland (D-NM).  “If there were dogs in those cages, all members of Congress would vote to get them out,” said Omar at the session. Pressley added, “If you improve the conditions of a child in a cage, the child is still in a cage!”

The crisis provided the backdrop to an ugly back-and-forth between these progressive women of color and Nancy Pelosi and her staff, which has played out mostly on Twitter and in the mind of Maureen Dowd. In a move reminiscent of the segregated South, someone in House leadership leaked a poll of only white non-college voters to “prove” that squad members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), represent a problem in swing districts.

The best analogy for why this is happening in the midst of a much more urgent concern might be what often happens in sports. When a team’s on a ten-game winning streak, everyone’s happy. When they’re losing, they’re pointing fingers. And right now the Democratic leadership is losing.

They have failed to restrain a human rights catastrophe within our borders. They have failed to capture the imagination of the public with anodyne bills going nowhere in the Senate. They have failed to challenge Donald Trump’s obstruction, and seem almost afraid to investigate him or his administration, perhaps for fear they will find something impeachable. They have managed to demobilize an engaged citizenry on the left and the center. They rode into power in 2018 promising a new day in Washington, and the day hasn’t changed. So they’re lashing out.

And that frustration is unquestionably louder because of what’s happening at the border. “We can all respectfully disagree, but know that this is very personal to me as a child of immigrants,” Representative Tlaib told me and another reporter after her session. “I will not support funding a broken system. I won’t further fund and support something that to me is un-American and violates international human rights.”

Tlaib added that Pelosi has explicitly told her to represent her district, and her unwillingness to fund unchecked operations in the border supplemental—the vote that triggered this latest bout of tension—fully reflects what her district wants.

“This is a district that, when I talk about mass incarceration, it is intertwined when I talk about caging of children on the border,” she said. “It’s a form of, to me, militarization of communities of color. And growing up in a northern border, in southwest Detroit, where we have 20 different ethnicities, I’ve seen it first-hand … I just bring it back to the work that we have to do, and that’s what we need to focus on. We need to be uplifting what’s happening at the border.”

The question then becomes what can be done to that end. And one thing that became surprisingly clear at Netroots Nation is the extent to which even policymakers of like minds don’t work together or even hear each other. The most remarkable panel of the weekend, bar none, happened on Friday, when Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, took the stage.

Because of timing issues with House votes, Merkley was alone on stage first, and he told HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel about his disappointment with House Democrats for rubber-stamping the Senate’s version of the border supplemental (which he voted against). “The assumption was that Pelosi would have taken it to conference and she didn't,” Merkley said. He said substantially the same thing to me in an interview before the session.

Jayapal showed up and flipped that narrative on its head. “We can’t have Senate passing big bipartisan votes because it affects things in the House,” she said, explaining that the 84-8 Senate vote on the bill gave conservative Democrats reason to ask why that bill couldn’t just get its own vote. Merkley countered that planning was underway to improve the Senate bill in conference, and that promise created the large vote to move the process forward. Jayapal agreed, but said that the large vote took away the House’s leverage.

It was clear that these congressional leaders, both on the same side on the issue, had never conferred with one another about the border supplemental. A normal person might ask what the vote in the Senate has to do with who holds the majority in the House. But that’s clearly not how these things work, and the lack of coordination on the dynamics of each chamber is striking. If a handful of progressive Democrats don’t talk to one another on something as simple as a vote count, how will resistance to the border agenda ever succeed?

Last week, Merkley introduced a bill, the Migrant Children Act, with the support of most Senate Democrats. But Mitch McConnell would more likely resign at an Amy McGrath rally than help get that passed. Hearings have been held and more are scheduled in the House, but with an unclear purpose beyond voicing displeasure.

Merkley also suggested that the border camps potentially violate the 1951 refugee convention. “We have federal law that actually backs it up,” he said. “It is written into our law that people can apply for asylum crossing between points of entry. The administration is engaged in a number of big lies, and one of them is, ‘simply come in at point of entry and everything will be fine.’ But the father and the daughter who died, they came to the point of entry.”

I asked presidential candidate Jay Inslee, who called Vice President Pence’s border visit shameful, whether he would consider direct action at the border to shut down the camps, which is increasingly becoming a last recourse. “Direct action today for me means remove Donald Trump from where he can be involved in this heinous activity,” he said, adding that judicial injunctions should be sought where possible.

Inslee hasn’t been down to the border recently, but he described the situation at a detention center south of Seattle. “Anyone, anywhere in the world who sees a photograph of the children in the cages … that inhumane crisis is an intentional act by Donald Trump. He has intended to inflict these inhumane conditions. He wants to terrorize these children and these families.”

There didn’t seem to be much consensus on next steps, outside of a palpable desire to cry out in anguish. In a sense, the Pelosi/squad shout-fest makes for a convenient distraction for a lack of a strategy to confront the biggest moral crisis of the Trump presidency. Tlaib suggested that a unified message could change the narrative.

“None of the squad is bickering, we’re working,” said Tlaib. “This is really about pushing back against this ideology and pushing back against the dehumanization of our immigrant neighbors.”

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