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Vulnerable Republicans Try to Navigate Immigration

Talks continue on how to address legal status of so-called Dreamers

Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo says he is working on a bipartisan immigration bill. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)
Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo says he is working on a bipartisan immigration bill. (Bill Clark/Roll Call)

What happens to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children is an issue that could loom large for several House Republicans facing tough re-election races next year.

Doing something to help those immigrants, also known as Dreamers, could win over some voters in their districts, especially Latinos. But that could also alienate Republican voters who want stricter immigration controls.

Lawmakers are gearing up for an immigration battle following President Donald Trump’s decision to phase out a program shielding undocumented childhood immigrants from deportation. Congress has until March to develop a proposal to protect those immigrants.

At the same time, Republicans headed into competitive re-election races — especially in districts with large Latino populations — may have to confront a hard question: Will voters embrace or reject their position on the divisive issue?

Key districts  

Some Democrats see the president’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, as a major point of contention in some of the key districts they hope to flip next year.

“I can’t overemphasize how important it’s going to be, particularly in these swing districts,” said Mayra Macias, political director for the Latino Victory Project, which supports liberal Latino candidates. “If there is no solution within this six-month time frame, I think it is going to be a big, big, big obstacle for some of these Republican candidates.”

The majority of DACA participants come from Mexico and Central America, so providing a permanent DACA fix could be an especially important move in districts with sizable Latino populations.

Thirty-three Republicans represent districts where 25 percent or more of the population is Latino, according to the Pew Research Center. Of those Republicans, 17 are Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targets. Eleven are in districts that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.

Some districts where the majority of residents are Latino are among the top Democratic targets for 2018.

Those include Texas’ 23rd District, represented by Republican Will Hurd; the race there is a Toss-up, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo is also a top target in a Tilts Republican race. California Rep. David Valadao is another Republican in a majority-Latino district, and his race is rated Likely Republican.

GOP strategist Rob Jesmer said this issue could help some Republicans politically in 2018 if lawmakers craft a deal to help the so-called Dreamers (a reference to a bill known as the DREAM Act, which would establish protections similar to DACA).

“My sense is most Republicans want a deal,” said Jesmer, who is also the campaign manager at the pro-immigration overhaul group “They realize it’s a good opportunity to get something that’s good for the country, it’s good for the Republican Party and it’s very popular.”

While some lawmakers are working behind the scenes, Republicans in competitive races with Latino constituencies are already taking diverging paths to address the issue.

Different approaches

To some extent, these Republicans have had to buck the national party. Strategists in both parties said the GOP brand has a negative reputation among Latino voters.

“They’re willing to separate themselves from kind of the national discussion and hone in on the local issues that really matter to people,” said one GOP strategist who works on House races.

A handful, including Hurd, Arizona Rep. Martha McSally and Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, have been named to Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s 10-member task force to develop a DACA fix.

Hurd referenced the task force when asked last month by a DACA recipient if he would co-sponsor the DREAM Act. He told the young man, “I’m working on legislation to get this done.” 

Other Republicans with sizable Latino constituencies had similar responses.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California said he would not co-sponsor the DREAM Act because it is a “straight amnesty bill.” Issa said he would be offering his own bill to address young undocumented immigrants.

Curbelo, who also has his own legislation, said he was working with fellow members of the Problem Solvers Caucus to craft a bipartisan bill that he said would be unveiled in the next few weeks.

But Curbelo has been criticized by activists for not signing onto the DREAM Act, which is largely a Democratic bill.

So far, five Republicans, four of them from swing districts, have signed onto the bill, including Valadao.

“I’d like to see us move on this and get this issue resolved,” the California Republican said last week.

“I’ve got 47,000 DREAMers in my district. My district is a heavily Hispanic district,” Valadao said. “My parents are Portuguese immigrants, so [it’s] a little more personal for people like myself and probably a few other members up here.”

GOP strategist Mike Madrid, who has studied Latino voting patterns, said Valadao and California GOP Rep. Jeff Denham, also a DREAM Act co-sponsor, are two models for other Republicans looking to navigate the polarizing issue. He cited their use of Spanish language ads, diverse staff and constituent services to connect with the Latino community.

Their support for the DREAM Act could help them ward off criticism, as activists come together to push for a clean vote on the bill.

“For these races where you have a sizable Latino population, I think we’re going to see the DREAM Act be almost like a litmus test for Latino voters,” said Macias of the Latino Victory Project. “I think this is an issue that will galvanize people to turn out, either in support or against a member.”

Just over 90 percent of Latino adults surveyed last month in a national LVP online poll said it was a good idea for Congress to pass the DREAM Act. Nearly 80 percent of the 755 adults surveyed said they were more likely to support a Republican who supports the DREAM Act.

As Republicans face pressure to co-sponsor the DREAM Act and sign a discharge petition to force a vote on the bill, some said they are boosting their negotiating position by not signing on.

“If it gets late and these young people are ever at risk, I could understand such a measure. But right now we have a bipartisan dialogue,” Curbelo said. “So signing a discharge petition will get attention and will get your name in an article, but it may not necessarily contribute to the type of environment we have to create to find a solution.”

Diaz-Balart, who is from Curbelo’s neighboring district, also said not signing onto the legislation allows for better negotiations. He has been part of past efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

“I don’t tend to get onto a lot of [the bills], just to lower the rhetoric and the decibels,” Diaz-Balart said. “Because if we’re going to get this done — and we have to — it’s going to be not by press conferences, [but] by just behind the scenes trying to come up with a solution.”

Macias rejected that argument, pointing out that one of their fellow Florida Republicans, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, signed onto the DREAM Act.

But as negotiations continue on Capitol Hill, and Republicans try to craft their own approaches to immigration, groups are planning to keep pressing lawmakers at home.

Pressure back home

Since Trump announced last month that he planned to rescind DACA, immigration activists have staged protests in lawmakers’ districts and at the Capitol.

Last week, protesters crowded into Hurd’s D.C. office, and four were arrested for protesting in the hallway. Julieta Garibay, campaigns director and co-founder of United We Dream, said actions are also being planned in Hurd’s district for next week’s House recess.

Samuel Molina, California director for the advocacy group Mi Familia Vota, said his group has been present at members’ offices in the state, and they would be dropping off petitions to urge lawmakers to sign onto the DREAM Act.

Mi Familia Vota’s executive director, Ben Monterroso, said these lawmakers are beginning to recognize that Latinos are organized and energized.

“I just think that the voting of the Latino community is coming of age, as I call it,” Monterroso said. “And these individuals who want the Latino vote, they need to show what side are they on.”

Activists said Latinos have been active since Trump launched his candidacy and referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers while pledging to build a wall along the southern border.

“All of those, of course, were very significant, very shocking, very troubling comments,” said Madrid, the GOP strategist. “But nothing was a jolt like DACA has been.”

Madrid said he expected an increased Latino turnout in the 2018 midterms compared to 2014.

“The question is how big,” he said.

Jesmer of said Republicans could quell the angst around the issue by forging a deal to protect these young undocumented immigrants.

“I think if we don’t get a DREAM Act done that will be very problematic,” Jesmer said. “I think if we can get a deal, the rescinding of DACA is going to be moot.”

But recent White House demands that any deal include funding for a border wall and limits on legal immigration could make crafting a proposal that’s tenable for Republicans, Democrats and the president even more difficult.

If Congress can’t get something done, don’t expect activists to go away quietly.

Garibay said they would continue pressing lawmakers on the issue. She said it was that same persistence that led President Barack Obama to implement DACA.

“We weren’t willing to take a ‘no,’” she said. “And I feel like we’re in the same moment. We’re going to continue pushing.”

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