The Republican Party has now officially abandoned Latinos. It’s not clear how much of a political price Republicans will pay for this, but we may find out as early as next year, when midterms may coincide with a GOP-authored mass deportation.
Sure, there are Republicans who want to find a legislative fix during the six-month window that President Trump has given Congress to act before he yanks legal protections from 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. These “Dreamers” have been working and studying here legally since 2012 under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
But who really believes that this GOP-controlled Congress can enact a bill to save DACA by this spring? Republicans have killed or blocked immigration legislation three times in the last decade. Multiple DACA-related bills that span the ideological spectrum are back on the table, but between lawmakers’ packed legislative schedule and the internal GOP disputes that have paralyzed Congress all year, it’s hard to imagine a sudden immigration breakthrough.
If anything, the basic rift that perpetually tears Republicans apart on immigration—between nativist hardliners and pragmatic business conservatives—is now deeper than ever. Far-right groups like the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for Immigration Reform, and Numbers USA, which have ties to white nationalists and which espouse extreme anti-immigrant policies, have risen to new prominence since Trump’s election.
Who backs these groups? FAIR, CIS, Numbers USA, and other anti-immigrant groups have scooped up close to $100 million in grants between 2006 and 2015 from such deep-pocketed conservative funders as the Scaife Family Foundation and the Sidney A. Swensrud Foundation, according to a recent report by the Center for New Community, which tracks what it calls “organized bigotry” in the United States.
Who fronts for them? Several prominent leaders from FAIR and CIS now serve in or advise the Trump administration, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has held posts both with FAIR and with its legal think tank, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, and who helped initiate and draft the leading state legal challenges to DACA. (Kobach also serves on Trump’s controversial “election integrity” commission.) Anti-immigrant groups and their leaders have spent millions lobbying and advertising against DACA, and have stepped up pressure on the Trump administration to rescind the program in recent months.
“These anti-immigrant groups now have unprecedented, unparalleled access to White House officials,” says Ethan Fauré, a research analyst with the Center for New Community, who helped author the group’s report.
Yet business leaders, already at odds with Trump over white supremacist violence, have come out by the hundreds in defense of DACA. Some prominent CEOs have pledged not to fire DACA workers and to pay for their legal counsel. Pro-DACA immigration advocates organizing sit-ins and rallies are receiving a potent lobbying assist from their business allies. Not everyone in this coalition agrees on overall immigration policy, but the DACA program itself is broadly popular, says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the NALEO Education Fund.
“I don’t recall a moment, certainly in the immigration debate, with this kind of broad support outside of the administration, even on both sides of Congress,” says Vargas. “So I think there is a real opportunity here to do something.”
Even if Congress fails to enact legislation, the DACA fight could create a political opening for Latinos, and for Democrats. Republicans have been worried about shifting demographics since 2012, when Latinos voted for Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 71 percent to 21 percent. A Republican National Committee postmortem that year warned, “It is imperative that the RNC changes how it engages with Hispanic communities to welcome in new members of our Party.”
Predictions that Latinos angered by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric would help deliver victory to Democrats fell short last year, of course, though some exit polls that suggested more Latinos voted for Trump than for Romney have been called into question. Nevertheless, the states that delivered the White House to Trump—Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin—are not heavily Latino, notes Vargas, who credits a Hispanic voter surge to the election of five new Latinos to the House and the first Latina to the Senate.
And the basic math of Latino political power remains the same: Between now and 2030, roughly 40 percent of all new voters will be Latino, and nearly one million U.S.-born Latinos will turn 18 and become eligible to vote every year. By wide majorities, moreover, Americans think the “Dreamers” should be allowed to stay in the United States; according to one Morning Consult/Politico poll, that even includes 73 percent of Trump voters.
Given how effectively GOP-drawn district lines protect Republican incumbents, however, many conservatives will be more worried about primaries from the right than about angering Latino voters. Still, some speculate that if DACA is suspended in the spring of 2018—a strong possibility if Congress can’t come up with a legislative solution—the political timing will be terrible for the GOP. Vulnerable Republican Senators in Arizona and Nevada, for example, are seeking re-election in heavily Latino states but are also expected to face primary challenges.
Trump’s declaration puts his congressional allies in a box, and delivers Latinos a potential watershed moment. Says Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, which advocates for the Latino community, “We are going to be holding them accountable, and we are going to be watching what they do.”
This post has been updated.