Kamala Harris is going all in on immigration reform.
On Wednesday, the 2020 contender will introduce legislation with Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) that would make Dreamers eligible to work as staffers or interns in Congress. It’s the latest move by the California Democrat to seize on an issue that her rival Beto O’Rourke has made his calling card — and to advocate for a Democratic constituency that’s often reduced to a congressional bargaining chip.
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Harris’ proposal, which would lift what immigrant-rights supporters consider to be a mean-spirited ban on Dreamers working in Congress, comes after Harris traveled to Latino-heavy Nevada this week for her second visit there as a presidential candidate. She also went to Texas recently, in part to build support among Latino voters.
For Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India whose campaign has distributed headsets at rallies to translate her speeches into Spanish, the southwestern sojourns are also an attempt to blunt O’Rourke, a fluent Spanish speaker who has gone toe-to-toe with Donald Trump on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump’s relentless focus on immigration has given Democrats an early opening to try to distinguish themselves beyond the usual support for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, individuals who are undocumented and arrived to the United States as children. Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, on Tuesday outlined his own plan for immigration reform, which his campaign described as “first-in-the-field.” In addition to creating a pathway to citizenship, his plan also would reform immigration enforcement.
Castro, the former San Antonio mayor, said he plans to appear at a rally opposite a Trump fundraiser in his city next Wednesday.
“The field of Democrats rushing the White House is impressive, but Latinos aren’t consolidating around one candidate yet,” said Kevin de León, a Democratic former California state Senate leader who challenged Sen. Dianne Feinstein from the left in 2018. De León stressed that Latinos aren’t single-issue voters, so they expect strong positions on a range of issues — from economic mobility, to education.
“This is the bottom line,” he said. “We led the blue wave in 2018, so 2020 candidates would be foolish to treat Latinos as an afterthought.”
Harris is moving aggressively to highlight her immigration reform bona fides — and her latest push comes as a growing number of Dreamers try to flex their muscle by becoming more involved in federal policymaking, after years of being shut out. Outside of Congress, hundreds of thousands of so-called DACA recipients were granted permits allowing them to work legally in the U.S.
“The giant sign outside my office says ‘DREAMers Welcome Here’ because we know and value the contributions that these young people have made to their communities,” Harris said in a statement. “Government works best when it reflects the people it represents.”
Harris and her team recognized early on that there was an opening on the immigration issue in the Senate, in part because large numbers of Latinos are more heavily concentrated in a handful of states including hers.
As a result, Harris, whose state has the most DACA recipients in the country, has made advocacy on immigration a top priority — at times even breaking with her party. Last year, she was one of three Democrats to oppose an immigration compromise that provided billions for the border wall in exchange for citizenship for Dreamers.
“She’s been a strong advocate particularly on issues that I’m concerned about: comprehensive immigration reform, DACA and Dreamers,” Durbin said. “I think there’s a certain intensity to her position based on the state she represents because of the diversity of” California.
In addition to Wednesday’s bill, Harris has introduced legislation that would expand oversight of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers.
Harris has also been tough on Trump’s nominees to the Department of Homeland Security. She sounded an early alarm on former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly when he was nominated for Homeland Security secretary, then voted against him. Harris also called on Kelly’s successor, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, to resign over the crisis involving family separations at the border.
On the campaign trail, Harris has contrasted herself with Trump, meeting privately in Nevada with Astrid Silva, the immigration activist and Dreamer. Earlier, Harris’ campaign rolled out the endorsement of Dolores Huerta, the labor and civil rights leader who co-founded what became the United Farm Workers.
Henry R. Muñoz III, co-founder of the Latino Victory Project and DNC national finance chair, expects the 2020 Democratic primary to serve as a kind of “laboratory” case of candidates are most successful turning out Latinos, including new and infrequent voters.
“Let’s just look at that day,” Muñoz said of Super Tuesday, when Texas and California go to the polls on March 3. “I think the story out of that day will be that the Latino community, early in this presidential cycle, made its voice heard, and it’s going to be fascinating to watch.”