Analysis: Republicans face a divisive fight over immigrants that could define the party’s future

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell listens as President Trump talks at a White House meeting Tuesday.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump’s decision to rescind a popular program that protected the most sympathetic of immigrants here illegally — those who were brought as children by their parents — poses a huge threat to his party, forcing Republican lawmakers to choose between the party’s nativist wing, which strongly opposes any move resembling amnesty, and those who favor a more flexible approach to minority communities.

The terms Trump set out give Republicans in Congress six months to pass a measure to protect those currently covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which was enacted under executive authority by President Obama.

But Congress has been unable for years to come up with immigration reforms, in large part because of divisions within Republican ranks, which sank immigration reform efforts under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush.


The worst-case scenario for many GOP lawmakers: If Congress stalls again, next year’s midterm election campaigns could be accompanied by thousands of young people each week being fired from their jobs or kicked out of school, and ultimately by some being deported to countries they have not seen since they were toddlers.

Some Republican strategists fear that revoking DACA could repeat on a national scale the damage Republicans in California incurred by supporting Proposition 187. That 1994 measure aimed at immigrants living in the U.S. illegally turned the California party from one that was competitive, and often victorious, in statewide elections to nearly an afterthought, disdained not only by Latinos but many moderate white voters.

Countering those fears are warnings by other Republicans that legislation to renew DACA would be the biggest grant of amnesty to immigrants here illegally since the Reagan administration. Passage of a legalization bill by a Republican Congress would deeply alienate many conservatives, they argued. Already, some were critical of Trump for not canceling the program outright.

The divisions within the GOP could be seen in the immediate aftermath of the administration’s announcement. Among Democratic lawmakers, the condemnation was swift and near universal. Many Republicans, by contrast, tried to avoid comment, and those who did talk offered widely divided reactions.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said he hoped both houses of Congress would act to ensure that “those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), on the other hand, insisted that any break for DACA recipients should be coupled with a bill he has proposed, with White House backing, that would reduce the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country legally.


“I’m not going to support just a blanket amnesty,” he said.

Some moderate Republicans suggested as a potential saving grace something that usually inspires dread: an all-out war within their party in which, they hope, their brand of Republicans can defend immigrants and put forward a broader and more aspirational definition of America.

But the fight ahead is just as likely to draw attention to the nationalist wing of the party.

For decades, many Republicans mindful of the declining number of white voters — the bulwark of the party — have argued that the GOP must embrace Latinos, Asians and others or be flattened by an eventual demographic wave. In 2016, slightly more than 7 in 10 voters were white, down from 9 in 10 when Reagan was elected in 1980. Latinos made up slightly more than 1 in 10 voters last year.

The announcement Tuesday came as a rebuff to efforts to broaden the GOP appeal to minorities.

Former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, a Republican who legally immigrated from Mexico at the age of 14, cried as she called Trump’s cancellation of the DACA program “a low hit to our gut.”

“I don’t know this party, I don’t recognize this party. This is not the party that I fought for, for 32 years, to improve its standing in the Latino community,” she said.


The central argument that has long been advanced by supporters of the DACA program — that people brought to the U.S. as children should not be blamed for their parents’ actions — has won broad support from the public. An NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll released last week, for example, found that 64% of Americans supported the DACA protections.

Even Trump’s most loyal voters were sympathetic: Among white working-class voters — those who propelled Trump’s important victories in the upper Midwest — 56% supported the DACA program.

Some laboring to elect Republicans said they hoped for a quick congressional judgment in favor of DACA recipients, believing that could rescue their party from a backlash.

“The Republicans running Congress have an opportunity to come through,” veteran Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said. “If they fail and those who have grown up in this country as Americans are forced back to countries they don’t know, that will be a catastrophically bad moment for the GOP.”

California is the template that Republicans like Stutzman are desperate to avoid. In 1990, in his first run for governor, Pete Wilson won 35% of the Latino vote. Four years later, he ran for reelection while touting Proposition 187, which would have stripped government benefits from those in the country illegally. He won 22% of the Latino vote.

More than that, the campaign prompted legions of Latinos to register to vote — the overwhelming majority of them as Democrats.


At the presidential level, Republicans have gained little ground among Latinos in recent elections. In 2013, party officials wrote a report urging that future candidates overtly appeal to the community.

Trump did the opposite. He lost Latinos by more than 2 to 1, but won the election in large part by maximizing turnout of conservative, white voters.

The DACA battle reflects a fight for supremacy within the GOP, part of which turns on differing views of whether Trump’s victory can be replicated. On one side are Republicans who share more nationalistic views, skeptical of immigration, a group most heavily concentrated in the South. The other side includes many Republicans from the West and Southwest who even now confront demographic change.

Cotton’s cosponsor on his bill to restrict legal immigration is Sen. David Perdue of Georgia. Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, formerly a senator from Alabama, consistently has been among the strongest voices against DACA within the administration.

On the other side, Trump’s action drew strong criticism from Arizona’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, as well as California Republican Reps. Jeff Denham of Turlock and David Valadao of Hanford, whose hopes of winning reelection next year probably depend on persuading voters to see them as separate from the president, at least on this issue.

“America is the only home these young people know, and I will do everything in my power to ensure those who were brought to the United States through no fault of their own are not unjustly punished,” Valadao said Tuesday.


Stances like that could protect the Republicans; indeed, the two lawmakers have consistently finished better than expected despite Democratic efforts to take them down.

“That’s exactly what should be the recipe for the Republican party,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who has studied Latino voting behavior for two decades.

Despite Trump’s victory last year, continued appeals to white voters skeptical of immigrants put Republicans on an untenable course, Madrid said.

“If we continue down this path, we’re going to see an increase in Latino turnout that is measurable,” he said, citing Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia as among the states where Democrats could benefit. “The math is starting to be unavoidable for Republicans. This is going to happen. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”

For more on politics from Cathleen Decker »


Twitter: @cathleendecker

Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed from Washington.


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