GOP faces opportunity to take on immigration, if it wants

With Democratic efforts faltering, Republican lawmakers see a chance to expand upon gains the party has made with Latino voters

Rep.  María  Elvira Salazar attends a news conference on immigration with other House Republicans in March. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. María Elvira Salazar attends a news conference on immigration with other House Republicans in March. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 18, 2021 at 5:45am

Rep. María Elvira Salazar, a freshman Republican from Florida, is sick of politicians promising — and failing — to improve the U.S. immigration system and help the undocumented population.

She recalled when President Barack Obama promised to pass immigration legislation — and didn’t. President Joe Biden has pledged the same, but so far faces an uphill battle to include lasting immigration measures in Democrats’ sprawling social spending bill.

“What does that mean? That once again, we have been abandoned because of child care, elderly care, health care, whatever care you want. Once again, that Hispanics have been forgotten,” Salazar said in an interview.

The daughter of Cuban immigrants, Salazar was one of nine House Republicans who voted in March with Democrats on legislation to put so-called Dreamers and other categories of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. At the time, she said her vote signaled to Democrats that she was “willing to work with them.”

As Democrats’ efforts for a path to permanent protections for undocumented immigrants falter, some political analysts see an opportunity for Republican lawmakers to step in and expand upon significant gains the party made with Latino voters in the 2020 election. With the midterm elections looming, such efforts could prove critical to growing Republican support among moderates who want to see immigration solutions — particularly in battleground states with significant Latino voting populations, such as Florida.

“Republicans sense an opportunity with Hispanic voters right now,” said GOP pollster Daron Shaw, a University of Texas at Austin professor. Republicans see those voters as being receptive to the party’s messaging on security and business opportunities, he said.

Polling has shown protections for certain categories of undocumented immigrants are popular among voters in key battleground states. It’s also an issue that has shown broad support across party lines.

Shaw conducted a bipartisan poll earlier this year in 11 battleground states and found a majority of voters, including 51 percent of respondents who said they always vote Republican, would support creating an earned path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who pass a background check, learn English and pay a fine.

Daniel Garza, president of The LIBRE Initiative, a conservative-leaning Latino advocacy group, thinks the moment is right for Republicans with concrete immigration proposals that go beyond border security.

“There’s obviously ample evidence that the GOP is making unprecedented inroads with the Latino community, and I think this is a really strong opportunity to come forward with legislative proposals that would balance both security — which, of course, is a priority to those on the center-right — but also with very viable options on legal channels,” said Garza, who previously worked for President George W. Bush’s campaign and administration.

Countering ‘all or nothing’

Salazar is preparing to put forth a legislative proposal incorporating her so-called dignity plan that would give temporary work permits to certain eligible undocumented immigrants without providing a full path to citizenship. It would also increase funding for border infrastructure.

She hopes to counter what she described as an “all or nothing” approach to immigration relief. Undocumented immigrants don’t all need citizenship, but they do need “dignity,” she said.

“It means to be able to come and live with dignity, not having to live in the shadows, raise their American kids, go home for Christmas or bury their dead, pay taxes, not commit crimes, and just enjoy the promised land, which is the United States,” she said.

Other Republicans have also stepped up on legislation that would legalize undocumented farmworkers in response to labor shortages, particularly in agricultural industries often housed in rural Republican districts.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., whose district is more than a third Hispanic, co-sponsored a House bill with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., that would provide a special visa status, and eventually green cards, to immigrants who worked a certain number of hours in agricultural labor and meet other criteria while ramping up employment authorization verification requirements.

In an interview, Newhouse stressed the need for a stable workforce in agricultural industry, which he said has had “difficulty attracting a legal workforce” over the past several decades.

“People at home understand the need for reform of our regulations surrounding ag reform. So I’m not afraid of that, of being a leader in this issue. I think it’s the right thing to do,” Newhouse said.

Sen. Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, is working on a Senate version of Lofgren and Newhouse’s bill, but Crapo said those negotiations have stalled while Democrats pursue their own reconciliation measure.

Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, said her organization met with 41 Republican senators earlier this year while lobbying for bipartisan immigration revisions. More than a dozen seemed receptive to concerns about the U.S. labor shortage and the need to compete for top talent globally, she said.

She also noted a number of Republican senators backed legislation last year to give pandemic relief checks to U.S. citizens in mixed-status families.

“The inevitability of the Latino vote and U.S. citizen children of undocumented turning 18, and then the desperate need for labor in agriculture and service industries, all speak to why Republicans ought to move forward next year,” Shi said.

“The question becomes weighing that versus the short-term calculation of beating up Democrats and Biden over the border to gain an advantage toward 2022.”

Political ‘conundrum’

That calculation has some pollsters warning the GOP could lean into its growing nativist faction, potentially turning off courtable Latino voters who might otherwise be swayed by the party’s messaging on the economy and security.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric proved successful for Republicans in 2016, when Donald Trump won the White House following a campaign launched with a description of Mexican migrants “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime” over the border. However, Republican analysts say that messaging flopped in the 2018 midterms, and Trump downplayed his border rhetoric during the 2020 election.

It’s a political “conundrum” for Republican candidates who must decide which voter base to pursue, said Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant who specializes in Latino voting trends.

“Do they believe that there’s enough growth with Hispanic voters to tone down the rhetoric and use their economic populist message to bring home those voters? In other words, the 2020 strategy, which was successful. Or will they use the 2016 strategy, which was also successful but turned off Hispanic voters, but boosts turnout with non-college educated whites?” Madrid said.

He added: “Left to its own devices, I’ve never seen the Republican Party offer constraint when they can attack immigrants. They just can’t help themselves.”

The political incentive for Republicans to appeal to Latino voters could also hinge on eventual redistricting determinations, Madrid said.

And while policies to provide legal status for certain categories of immigrants do well in public opinion polling, Republican candidates may fear political repercussions on the campaign trail.

“Moving on immigration reform could be a problem if that reform is branded as amnesty,” said Shaw, the pollster. “If you don’t promote and define and frame the issue, there’s a risk that someone could mischaracterize it.”

A number of Republican senators, including two from the so-called Gang of Eight that ushered comprehensive immigration legislation through the Senate in 2013, said they would need to see additional border security measures before greenlighting changes on immigration.

“You gotta secure the border first before you can have a conversation,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who recently proposed bipartisan legislation to revise border processing with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said he sees a “number of areas” where Republicans would come to the table on immigration, such as protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

But he wasn’t particularly optimistic that the two political parties could reach a consensus.

“I think the Democrats have given up on it. They’d just rather use this as an issue in the next election rather than solve the problem,” he said.