QUEENS, N.Y. ― Less than a week after President Donald Trump told her to “go back” to her country, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) returned to her home — New York City. She held a town hall in Corona, Queens — her first since the end of June.
The topic of the forum, held in the auditorium of a public school, was immigration ― the same issue that had landed her in the crosshairs of both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Trump.
But facing hundreds of her diverse and adoring constituents, some of whom held homemade signs welcoming her, the freshman congresswoman defended her progressive vision of immigration reform against attacks from both Republicans and her fellow Democrats.
“We’re here. They sent me back to Queens ― and I’m happy to be here,” she began with a chuckle, drawing sustained applause and shouts of “welcome home” from the crowd.
Ocasio-Cortez trained her fire first on Trump, arguing that his remarks revealed his racist character.
“All you need to do is hear what the president did this week to know that this is not about immigration at all. Because once you start telling American citizens to quote ‘go back to their countries,’ this tells you that this president’s policies are not about immigration, it’s about ethnicity and race,” she said. “His biggest mistake was that he said the quiet part loud.”
But without naming names, the New York congresswoman also acknowledged that she has been taking flak for her positions from fellow Democrats.
“I’ll keep it real with you all, even within our party it’s a difficult issue. ... One of the reasons I get in trouble is because I talk about immigration too much. It’s because I try to protect our community quote-unquote too much. It’s because I say that there are some things that should not be up to politics and putting kids in cages is one of them,” she said, prompting loud applause.
Ocasio-Cortez called for the creation of a commission — modeled after the storied commission that analyzed the causes of the Sept. 11 attacks — to look into the causes and impact of the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents.
“That kind of study is what’s going to be required in order to reunify as many children with their parents as possible,” she said.
In her remarks, Ocasio-Cortez also proposed a similar commission to study the damage and aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In a subsequent tweet, she added an appeal for a panel to study reparations for the descendants of slaves.
Rarely, if ever, has Ocasio-Cortez felt more pressure from her party leadership than in the past few weeks.
At the end of June, Ocasio-Cortez and the three Democratic colleagues ― Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.) ― who are together known as “the Squad,” were the only House Democrats to vote against a border funding bill backed by Speaker Pelosi and House leadership that sought to provide greater resources for federal authorities to deal with a surge of asylum-seekers at the Southern border.
The congresswomen cast their votes as a matter of conscience, arguing that there were inadequate humanitarian strings attached to the new money and that border funding should be conditional on an end to practices like the detention of children. The bill passed easily, despite their opposition.
The Republican Senate passed a border funding bill with none of the conditions the House approved. But rather than pass their bill again in the House and force a conference committee to draw up a compromise between the two chambers, moderate Democrats in the House led a revolt against Pelosi that forced the passage of the unamended Senate bill.
Rather than publicly chide the moderates, Pelosi targeted the Squad, telling a New York Times columnist on July 6, “These people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
“We have to talk about the world that we want and are fighting for.”
A war of words ensued between members of the Squad, who felt unfairly singled out, and Democratic leadership and its staffers, who are wary of the progressive primary challenges that propelled Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley to power. The tiff came to a head on July 12 when the House Democratic Caucus’ official Twitter account insulted Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff and Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff retweeted it.
Ocasio-Cortez defended her vote against the original House vote again on Saturday, even as she avoided reviving the now-dormant feud with Pelosi and her allies. She argued that it lacked the key humanitarian provisions, like the addition of doctors to facilities run by the Customs and Border Protection agency.
“I got heat from my own party for ... making that point,” she said of the vote. “But if we really want to pass a humanitarian bill, then let’s pass a humanitarian bill. If it’s not a humanitarian bill, don’t call it a humanitarian bill.”
The event, which was translated into Spanish, Mandarin, Bangla, Tibetan, Nepali and American Sign Language in real time, felt like a window into an alternative progressive universe where the heavily populated, diverse and more liberal communities in coastal cities actually drove the policy agenda on Capitol Hill.
Ocasio-Cortez even indulged the audience with her vision of a proactive immigration policy that does not merely react to Trump, but tears down barriers that preceded him. She called for making immigration enforcement a civil, rather than a criminal, matter once again. Her appeal echoes the message of former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino presidential candidate, who has made turning unauthorized border crossing into a civil, rather than criminal, offense a cornerstone of his campaign.
“Especially when it comes to immigration ... it feels like we’re always coming from a defensive place. We’re just trying to protect what we have,” she said. “We have to talk about the world that we want and are fighting for.”
Thanks to the existence of the Senate, partisan gerrymandering in the House and exaggerated fears of a mythical conservative swing voter, Democratic leaders in Congress are often cautious to the point of inaction. They are constantly seeking a balance between policies that curb Trump’s worst excesses and more milquetoast maneuvers designed not to turn off the moderate voters they believe they need to win elections.
It’s a reality Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged, noting that her Democratic colleagues shot down an amendment to the defense budget she proposed that would have banned U.S. troops at the Southern border. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told HuffPost on Wednesday that the committee did not issue any recommendation to members on whether to vote for the amendment because of the objections of more moderate Democrats on the Homeland Security Committee.
Even if Democrats have unified control of the federal government, Ocasio-Cortez said, “that doesn’t mean that immigration policy is going to change. Because if we elect a party that thinks creating a humane border is going to lose them the election, they’re not going to create that humane border.”
“A lot of the work we need to do is cultural, because we need to make immigration policy a commonsense, non-radical thing,” Ocasio-Cortez added.
Perhaps in an attempt to move that cultural needle, Ocasio-Cortez did not repeat her characterization of the border detention centers as “concentration camps.”
She also sought to give historical context to another town hall speaker’s call to dismantle the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, noting that its creation in 2003 combined many federal agencies with different functions that could easily be spun off once more.
“Reorganizing and getting rid of DHS is not as radical as George Bush’s implementation and creation of DHS,” she said.
Whether Ocasio-Cortez will succeed in building more support for her policy agenda inside Congress with such arguments remains to be seen. But she has a powerful campaign war chest at her disposal and ― as the ecstatic throngs of supporters who came to see her on a steamy Saturday attest ― she enjoys a grassroots following that is likely unparalleled in the House.
To the extent that her supporters were aware of Ocasio-Cortez’s feud with Pelosi, they appeared to side with their congresswoman.
“Pelosi needs to go. Her day has come and gone,” said Rhoda Dunn, a real estate broker from Jackson Heights who brought a homemade “Welcome Home AOC” sign.
Some of those in attendance were not even from the district, but had instead come from other parts of New York City to see the rockstar congresswoman in person.
One such Ocasio-Cortez fan, Michael Howard, traveled from Far Rockaway, a neighborhood in southeast Queens represented by Rep. Gregory Meeks. Meeks succeeded Joe Crowley, whom Ocasio-Cortez ousted in June 2018, as chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party, and is a political adversary of Ocasio-Cortez’s in borough politics.
“Her and these three other congresswomen who are trying to save this country more than anyone else in Washington, D.C. ― they’re like the Ninja Turtles,” Howard said, referencing a popular culture franchise.
“And Bernie Sanders is Splinter,” he added referencing the ninja turtles’ fictional teacher.