OMRO, Wis. — Again and again, constituents at Rep. Glenn Grothman's town hall meetings this week wanted to talk about DACA, "chain migration" and "the wall" — the right half of the vocabulary of the fierce immigration debate now playing out in Washington.
"Can't they go back and get in line?" asked one woman who came to a dim municipal basement here, about 12 miles west of Oshkosh, on a recent weekday morning. "Why can't they go back and do it legally?"
Grothman didn't hesitate: "I'll do all I can to hold out for as tough a position as we can get," he told the woman, who declined to give her name to a reporter. "We'd rather shut down the government rather than go down the path of ruining America. And I think doing what some of those Democrats wanted — immediate legality for all these people and then just starting the open-borders thing again — could ruin America. I mean, it would be the end of America."
President Trump has promised to protect young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children and who are now living in limbo because of his cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. And a bipartisan group of senators has been negotiating for days to reach a deal.
But House Republicans such as Grothman could have the last word on the fate of "dreamers," as these immigrants are known.
Trump has not gotten behind a compromise shaping up in the Senate; nor are those negotiators likely to endorse a White House proposal expected Monday that will include protections for dreamers alongside hard-line steps to increase border security and curb legal immigration.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has indicated that he will not to bring immigration legislation to a vote until it has wide support from fellow Republicans. Grothman — a shambling, strident conservative with a Trumpian tell-it-like-it-is streak who typically votes with the House GOP leadership — is not equivocating about where he stands, especially after the issue sparked a government shutdown a week ago.
In an interview, Grothman described the tilt in his district toward hard-line immigration policies as "overwhelming" and said he felt "no pressure" to cut a deal before the Feb. 8 government funding deadline or the scheduled final expiration of DACA in March.
"I think there's some sympathy for people who were brought here, but overall I think their overall anger is at the politicians who let this thing go on so long," he said, echoing other colleagues in the Republican rank and file. "This idea that we've got to do something now or never? Pfft."
The feedback loop in Republican-held districts is a major obstacle for those who advocate legal status and eventual citizenship for dreamers. They cite widespread public support for their views but still have to convince some lawmakers who don't see much support among their constituents for undocumented immigrants, even those who did not choose to come to the United States.
Grothman's tough stance was largely reinforced by the scores of people who saw him over two days this week in his conservative, mostly white 6th Congressional District, where he held eight town halls. The area north of Milwaukee on the west shore of Lake Michigan is dotted with dairy farms and midsize factories, and it has tilted increasingly Republican in recent elections.
"President Trump lit the fire, and I think he did because it needs lighting," said Nancy Wiedmeyer, 68, who attended a meeting in rural Theresa and asked about efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She had sympathy for the young immigrants — but "within limits."
"I think our country is a very wonderful, open, giving country," she said. "We have to protect it. You go to any other country in the world, and they won't let you stay there. . . . Why should we be so ultra-giving that way?"
Grothman took nearly 100 questions over the course of four of his town halls, and while many people brought up immigration, only a handful expressed unconditional sympathy for dreamers.
In fact, that term — coined by a Republican senator who authored a long-stalled immigration bill called the Dream Act — was rarely uttered despite being favored by young immigrants and their advocates. Instead, Grothman and his constituents spoke of "DACA people," "DACA kids" and occasionally just "DACAs."
In Theresa, Grothman heard from Barry Thompson, a recent retiree who was incensed by reports that a group of dreamers had briefly blocked the entrance to Disneyland in protest after congressional Democrats agreed to reopen the government without a deal on immigration. He pressed Grothman on what steps he had taken to keep illegal immigrants in California from voting in federal elections.
"You had a bunch of DACA kids standing there, waving foreign flags and stopping people from just enjoying themselves, saying they had rights," Thompson said in an interview. "Wait a second: It's not my fault your parents brought you over here. We've allowed you to stay here. We've given you education. We've given you health care. We've given you housing, and now you're demanding more? No. Uh-uh."
Later that day, in nearby Campbellsport, Jeff Schroer, 58, asked Grothman about legislation he had co-sponsored that would allow fines or jail time for state or local government officials who refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. He lamented past political promises of border security that, he said, never seemed to pan out.
"I'm glad that there's finally a line drawn in the sand," said Schroer, who owns a landscaping business. "We've been down this road many times with Democrats. Let's see some solutions."
And in Fisk, another rural burg, Grothman was quizzed by Lawrence Hildenbrand, a 27-year-old Army reservist who has worked several factory jobs and fretted about an influx of unskilled labor into a tight job market.
"It's the metrics of it all: The country can only support so many individuals," he said. "I can understand that we're a nation of immigrants and everything else — yes, that's understandable. But . . . a person 50 years ago could go and work a blue-collar job at a foundry and have a house in two years. I'd be working my entire life and still be paying off the mortgages."
Voters largely echoed Trump's rhetoric on the issue: that perhaps there was a fair way to grant legal status to the dreamers, but only in conjunction with a massive crackdown on illegal immigration, and even some legal immigration.
Immigration policy, Grothman told the Theresa crowd, "should be determined by us picking them, not people sneaking across the border, and as soon as more Democrats recognize this, I think we will be able to pass a DACA bill."
According to estimates from the University of Southern California's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, Grothman's district is home to roughly 600 DACA recipients and an additional 900 who could be eligible for protections — putting it in the bottom third of all House districts nationwide and slightly under the median for Republican-held districts.
Those who do support dreamers there appeared to be lying low on this town hall tour.
After the Campbellsport meeting, retired teacher Patricia Grose stood in the evening cold outside the public library and said the dreamers ought to be protected. "These kids are everywhere," she said. "We're going to take them out and take them to a country they have no idea what it's like?"
But when Grose had a chance to ask Grothman a question, she asked about the preservation of public lands, not DACA. "I thought nobody else would care," she said.
Those who pressed the congressman on the issue did not receive an especially sympathetic ear.
Joel Schlachtenhaufen, a 76-year-old retired Lutheran minister from Neenah, Wis., asked him at the Omro event whether he would commit to meeting with representatives of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service or another religious agency aiding immigrants.
"They are the ones that really know," he said. "Their anecdotes are much more plentiful than yours, and they're facts."
Grothman was hardly enthusiastic: "If they call my office, I'll try to meet with them."
Afterward, Schlachtenhaufen bemoaned a "multifaceted propaganda machine" that had his friends, his neighbors and now his congressman seeing immigrants as little more than criminals. "I just can't believe that he's not hearing from others on this," he said.
His wife and a few other like-minded friends stood beside him and indicated that they did not quite share his disbelief.
"Just like with the election," said Kay Procknow, a 66-year-old church volunteer. "Too many people stayed home, too many people weren't vocal about it, and it's hard to really speak out forcefully when you're outnumbered."