Border crisis exposes quandary for Republicans as it energizes conservatives

At a town hall meeting Wednesday night in Easton, Md., Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) answered several questions about immigration from constituents concerned about the continued congressional deadlock. (Jackie Kucinich/The Washington Post)

On the Michigan airwaves this week, Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land released a TV ad accusing her Democratic opponent of being soft on illegal immigration. In an Iowa campaign stop, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told supporters that President Obama’s moves toward protecting many undocumented migrants from deportation amounted to a king changing laws by “royal edict.”

At a Maryland firehouse, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) warned that if Democrats insist on offering citizenship to illegal immigrants, House Republicans would never support a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

“Our position is border security before we discuss immigration,” Harris told more than 50 people during a town hall meeting in Easton.

As lawmakers returned home this week to prepare for the final mid-term campaign stretch, immigration is back on the political forefront, presenting Republicans with a sharp conundrum.

The current crisis of Central American children flowing across the border has empowered conservatives, whose more restrictionist views on the issue have taken precedence in the party. House Republicans are pushing for more deportations, and several of the party’s prospective 2016 White House contenders are moving to align themselves with the GOP’s pro-enforcement wing.

The tough rhetoric can help Republicans appeal to their core voters. But the strategy runs counter to the party’s announcement — after losing the presidential race two years ago — that its future depends largely on broadening its appeal to minority groups and that its viability as a national force in 2016 and beyond depends on making inroads with Latinos, one of the fastest-growing voting blocs.

“This is a short-term political gain for Republicans,” said Charles Spies, a former Mitt Romney campaign aide who is part of a coalition of Republicans advocating for immigration reform. “The problem, of course, comes on the national scale. . . . Without a friendly posture towards [Hispanics], we still face a massive demographic problem.”

Obama won more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2012 reelection, after which the Republican National Committee wrote in a blunt self-assessment: “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

Last week, the GOP-led House voted to authorize millions of federal dollars to send National Guard troops to the border to stem the influx of minors from Central America, moved to overturn an anti-trafficking law meant to protect the children and voted to end an Obama administration program that has postponed the deportations of more than half a million young immigrants.

The moves by the Republicans were met with outrage among immigrant rights groups, but GOP lawmakers touted their actions as a response to a border fiasco of Obama’s making and a bid to present the White House’s potential executive action on immigration as an unconstitutional power play.

House leaders had already decided this summer to abandon efforts to pursue broader legislation that would have created a path to legalization for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country. That decision prompted the White House to lay the groundwork for executive action that some advocates say could defer deportations of up to 5 million people.

New polls show that the GOP has made little or no progress in its goal of wooing Latinos. This week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 65 percent of Hispanics hold an unfavorable view of the party, with just 29 percent viewing Republicans favorably. Sixty-one percent view the Democratic Party favorably.

Even so, polls also showed that Republicans might have had a chance to gain ground. Obama’s 54 percent job approval rating among Hispanics in the most recent Gallup poll marks a steep decline from 75 percent in December 2012 — prompting some Republicans to fret about a missed opportunity, particularly in swing states where the party’s lack of action could hurt their fortunes.

“I’m extremely frustrated,” said Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who is in a tight contest in his bid to unseat Sen. Mark Udall (D) in a state where Hispanics make up 21 percent of the population. “I have been somebody who has been very vocal since I got elected to Congress about the need for immigration reform.”

An NBC News/Marist College poll found Gardner trailing Udall, 58 percent to 27 percent, among Hispanic registered voters. Gardner and 10 fellow Republicans running for reelection in heavily Latino districts voted against their party last Friday, when House leaders agreed to conservatives’ demands that the chamber vote on a measure rolling back Obama’s 2012 program deferring the deportations of young migrants brought to the country illegally by their parents. The program is popular with Hispanics. (Four Democrats in difficult campaigns voted in favor.)

Carlos Gutierrez, a former commerce secretary in the George W. Bush administration, has led a coalition of Republicans in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and he said the Friday vote was counterproductive.

“It’s a very, very emotional thing for a lot of people,” Gutierrez said. “You’re talking about kids, about people who made a life in the U.S., and all of a sudden, they’re out. And the vote was non-binding. What’s the point?”

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said that Republicans voted for “mass deportations of our families, our children.”

The conflicting pressures were at play in a confrontation captured on video Monday at a campaign event in Okoboji, Iowa, during which Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the House GOP’s most forceful anti-illegal immigration voices, debated with an immigration advocate who interrupted his lunch during an appearance with Paul.

Paul, who is openly weighing a 2016 presidential bid and last year warned that the GOP faced “permanent minority status” if it did not show more respect toward Hispanic immigrants, was in the middle of eating and looked uncomfortable as he quickly left the table.

Though he said later he was late for an interview, immigration advocates accused him of ducking tough questions. Paul has told Latino audiences that he supports broad immigration reform, but he voted against bipartisan Senate legislation that would have put millions of immigrants on a path to legalization.

Paul said this week his concerns stemmed from Obama’s handling of the issue.

“It doesn’t matter what your opinion is on immigration . . . you can’t do it by royal edict,” he said. “You can’t have a king doing it. And because he’s been doing it all by himself, he’s not fixing the problem. You can’t have an open border and then offer some people forgiveness or acceptance.”

Paul’s recent comments reflect a rightward tilt among several of the party’s presidential candidates, particularly those who, like Paul, have sounded a more centrist tone in the past.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), for instance, announced plans to send 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, calling the Obama administration’s response to the current crisis inadequate. Perry was criticized by conservatives during his failed 2012 presidential bid for backing in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

Another potential White House contender, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), was among the Senate group that authored the bipartisan immigration legislation passed by the chamber last year. But amid fierce opposition from conservatives, who called the bill an unfair amnesty for illegal immigrants, Rubio has focused his message heavily over the past year on border enforcement.

The party’s focus on enforcement appears to be a response to the views of core conservative voters.

In Hiawatha, Iowa, Jeri Thompson, 50, attended an event featuring Paul and other GOP candidates and pronounced herself “very worried about the illegals coming in.”

Asked about the children and families apprehended at the southern border, Thompson said that “it’s not just street urchins from Central America carrying diseases in, but also criminals, thugs, gang members. No other country is dumb enough to have their borders wide open like us.”

Some in the GOP said they hope that if the party wins control of both chambers of Congress, Republicans could pass a comprehensive immigration bill with conservative principles that would be hard for Obama to veto. But those prospects remain uncertain.

In Colorado, Cheryl Bartlett, a registered nurse from Pueblo, said she agreed with Republicans on the need for tougher border controls.

“I think we should build a wall, just like they had in Berlin and Russia,” she said. “Build that wall and keep people out.”

Scott Clement, Matea Gold, Jackie Kucinich and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

David Nakamura covers the White House. He has previously covered sports, education and city government and reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Japan.
Sebastian Payne is a national reporter with The Washington Post. He is the Post’s 35th Laurence Stern fellow.
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