By Kristina Peterson and Louise Radnofsky
WASHINGTON—House Democratic leaders held firm through the five-week government shutdown that ended last month. Still, the party’s liberal wing is keeping up pressure on leadership as negotiations over a border-security deal heat up.
A group of liberal House Democrats and advocacy groups are urging Democrats in a bipartisan negotiating committee to refuse further funding for the Homeland Security Department, which oversees the border with Mexico. The group’s 17 lawmakers have less than two weeks to reach a deal before government funding expires again.
President Trump has said several times he is pessimistic lawmakers can reach a deal that he would accept, and he has threatened to take action to build his long-promised border wall on his own, including possibly declaring a national emergency.
Congressional leaders have been optimistic the group of House and Senate lawmakers can reach an agreement, but any bipartisan deal is unlikely to appease some in the party’s left wing.
A letter to House Democrats, written by freshman Democratic Reps. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and signed by at least three others, criticizes Homeland Security for practices including prosecution and detention of immigrants.
The department and its frontline enforcement units—Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection—have become high-profile targets as they implement the Trump administration’s attempts to step up deportations and the zero-tolerance policy that last year resulted in family separations at the border.
“These agencies have promulgated an agenda driven by hate—not strategy,” the lawmakers wrote. They argue that the agencies’ ability to shift funds makes it impossible to prevent money from being used for policies that Democrats generally oppose.
Refusing funding for the agency housing the president’s top political priority isn’t going to draw Republican support, a House Democratic aide said, which the committee would need to produce a deal.
“It’s totally unrealistic,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), who is in the negotiating group, said of the Democratic letter. “That basically says you don’t want to secure the border.”
Democrats overall say they favor border security, just not Mr. Trump’s border wall, and immigration advocates said their task is to counter the president.
“What you see from this administration is not an effort to find a policy breakthrough,” said Cristina Jimenez, executive director of United We Dream, an immigrant youth-led organization. “What we need in this moment, particularly under a [House] Democratic majority is to be a real opposition party to this administration.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) stuck to her position during the five-week partial shutdown that she wouldn’t negotiate over border security until the government was reopened. Mr. Trump ultimately acquiesced.
Mrs. Pelosi’s political victory strengthened her grip over House Democrats, some of whom had grown uneasy during the lengthy shutdown. Still, while these liberal lawmakers make up a relatively narrow slice of the caucus now, she could face more pressure if a broader group takes up their concerns.
Mrs. Pelosi’s office declined to comment.
House Democrats on the bipartisan group unveiled an opening offer last week that included no funding for any physical barriers along the border, a contrast from Mr. Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to help fund part of a wall. But the Democrats’ terms included provisions that drew criticism from some immigrant-advocacy and other liberal groups.
Democrats’ initial offer would send almost $14.3 billion to CBP, an increase of $278 million over the 2018 funding and $70 million more than the Trump administration requested, according to a summary published by Democratic leaders. Areas such as inspection technology at land ports of entry would get an additional $631 million over the requested amount, while $502 million would go to support migrants at the border.
Democrats on the committee also proposed funding for ICE that they say would be $847 million less than requested, but still $369 million over the 2018 request. They highlighted several provisions that fund the agency while addressing Democratic concerns, including money for family-detention beds for the current fiscal year—but with the caveat that family detention be phased out by the end of the year. They also propose increasing an “alternatives to detention” program to 100,000 participants, up from 82,000.
Republicans on the committee haven’t yet released any detailed offers, beyond stating their support for legislation reflecting Mr. Trump’s most recent proposal.
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