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Opinion

Op-Ed: Kevin McCarthy’s anti-Dreamer Gang of 11 explains the GOP’s epic fail in California

Why California’s Kevin McCarthy is having a hard time locking down the speaker’s job — again
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
(Michael Brochstein / TNS)

Americans want to legalize the “Dreamers” — immigrants who were brought here illegally as children — and most Americans want to give them the option of becoming citizens. Californians in high numbers back these options too. Even Republicans, in poll after poll, have said they want to legalize the Dreamers.

So why are 11 of California’s 14 Republican House members dead set against the initiative to let their chamber finally vote on Dreamer legalization later this month? What constituency are they representing by compelling young people to retreat to the shadows, or even face deportation to nations they don’t even remember?

The polling on Dreamer legalization is voluminous and dispositive. An April Quinnipiac poll found that 77% of Americans favored a path to citizenship for Dreamers. A more detailed Politico/Morning Consult poll from last summer showed 76% of Americans (and 69% of Republicans) supported permitting Dreamers to gain legal status, with 58% favoring citizenship. A USC Dornsife/L.A. Times poll of Californians from 2016 asked about legalizing not Dreamers per se, but all undocumented immigrants, and found 78% support for that idea, with 65% favoring the citizenship option as well. (In the same poll, 66% opposed building a wall on the border.)

With public opinion so lopsided, you might think a congressional majority could be found to grant the Dreamers legal status — and you’d be right. Every congressional Democrat and a minority of their Republican colleagues — enough to constitute majorities in both the Senate and the House — support Dreamer legalization. But Republicans control both houses, and they have thwarted efforts in the House even to bring the issue to a vote.

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The only way to overcome the refusal of the Republican leadership — Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Bakersfield’s own Kevin McCarthy, the majority leader — to bring the issue to the floor is for members to force a vote by obtaining the signatures of a majority (218) of House members on a petition demanding it. Twenty-three Republicans and 190 Democrats have now signed the “discharge” petition for a total of 213, and the campaign’s organizers say they have commitments from at least five more members who will join the effort unless Ryan and McCarthy agree by Thursday (the last day the current petition can be submitted) to permit a vote.

Republicans have slipped behind ‘no party preference’ in the Golden State.

Three California Republicans are among the 23 GOP members who’ve signed — Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both from the San Joaquin Valley, and Steve Knight, from the northern wilds of L.A. County. All three represent districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and districts with substantial Latino populations. Latinos make up 76% of the residents in Valadao’s district, 43% in Denham’s and 39% in Knight’s. While support for Dreamer legalization encompasses all races, Latino families disproportionately stand to be disrupted if Dreamers are deported or forced to evade immigration authorities.

Each of the 11 Californian Republicans who’ve declined to sign the petition has many thousands of Latino families and Dreamers in his or her district. In Rep. Devin Nunes’ Tulare district, 48% of the residents are Latino; in McCarthy’s district, 38%. McCarthy has made it clear that they don’t loom large in his electoral calculations.

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In a talk he gave to his Republican colleagues, Politico reported, McCarthy said that legalizing the Dreamers would discourage the Republican base — whom he views as a collection of Fox-fed nativists — from turning out in November. “If you want to depress [their] intensity, this is the No. 1 way to do it.”

McCarthy’s own ambitions depend on keeping that intensity high. He’s favored to succeed Ryan, who has announced his retirement, but McCarthy can become speaker, of course, only if the Republicans hold the House in November. He’s fearful too that the Freedom Caucus of ultra-right House members will reject his bid for leadership, blaming him if the petition forces a vote that legalizes Dreamers. And he doesn’t want to endanger his best-boy status with the president (Trump refers to him, proprietarily, as “my Kevin”).

In a choice between all that and condemning millions of young Americans (that’s what the Dreamers are) to stunted lives, McCarthy has shown where he stands. So, for their own reasons, have his 10 California Republican House colleagues — including all four from Orange County. By declining to sign the petition, they also are refusing to permit a vote on legalization, despite the consequences to hundreds of thousands of their constituents.

In newly tabulated June 5 primary voter rolls, Republicans have slipped behind “no party preference” in the Golden State. If they wonder why, the cruel, calculating nativism of McCarthy’s Gang of 11 provides a plausible answer.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect. He is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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