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Will Republicans Go Down on the Sinking Ship Named Xenophobia?

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During the week of March 15, the United States House of Representatives will vote on H.R. 6, the Dream and Promise Act. The legislation would create a path to citizenship for over 3 million young immigrants as well as TPS holders. The measure passed in 2019 by a vote of 237-187, and seven Republicans voted yes. We will now learn if the GOP in 2021 is ready to work with Democrats towards solutions that American voters support, or whether the GOP will simply offer more of the same political nonsense, attacks and inertia of the last four years.

The legislation is extremely popular. By an 83-12% margin, Americans support Dreamers’ citizenship, described in the Quinnipiac poll as “allowing undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the United States and eventually apply for citizenship.”

An Opportunity for Republicans who want to represent their constituents

A national consensus exists. But, the current Republican Party is way out of the mainstream on the immigration issue, which creates a challenge for
Republicans outside of deeply red GOP strongholds. This includes six members who didn’t cast votes on the 2019 bill who represent districts that Biden won: David Valadao (CA-21); Mike Garcia (CA-25); Young Kim (CA-39); Michelle Steel (CA-48); Beth Van Duyne (TX-24); and Maria Elvira Salazar (FL-27).

Of the three other Republican members representing districts won by Biden, Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) and Don Bacon (NE-02) voted to support the legislation in 2019, while Rep. John Katko (NY-24) voted against.

During the 2020 campaigns, Republicans in three of the Biden-held districts, CA-21, CA-39, and CA-48, were able to flip back seats the GOP lost in 2018 by softening or turning away from the anti-immigrant hard-line of their party. Each of the three winning Republicans (Valadao, Kim and Steel) supported DACA, for example. 

In CA-21, after losing his seat to Democrat TJ Cox in 2018, Republican David Valadao won a rematch and took back the seat. In stark contrast to most of the rest of his party, Valadao made pro-immigrant policies central to his electoral pitch in 2020. In August, Valadao ran an ad touting that he “stood up to his own party to reform immigration and protect Dreamers.” Then in September, Valadao ran a TV ad with a testimonial from a DACA recipient, calling himself a “champion for Dreamers.” These California races further underscore how a GOP nationally identified as the anti-immigrant party may present problems to GOP candidates in upcoming elections. 

In CA-39, Young Kim embraced her immigrant background and spoke about her support for Dreamers during the campaign, noting, “She has always run as a pro-immigration candidate and supports a permanent fix to DACA.” As Fox News recently noted of Kim’s stance toward Dreamers: “She wants to afford these so-called “Dreamers” legal status to live without fear of deportation. “Their only crime is that they had loving, caring parents and family members [who] brought them over here — crossing the border, risking their lives because they wanted to provide the opportunity to realize the American dream for their next generation.”

In CA-48, long-time anti-immigrant hardliner Dana Rohrabacher lost in 2018 to Democrat Harley Rouda with Rohrabacher and allies running hard on xenophobic dog-whistles. In 2020, Republicans put forward Michelle Steel, an immigrant from South Korea, who did not shy away from her immigrant background and supported “a permanent legislative fix for DACA” during the campaign, though also running on anti-sanctuary and border enforcement messaging.

In the South Florida district FL-27, Maria Elvira Salazar won in a majority Hispanic district. According to news reports, at a recent House GOP caucus meeting, Rep. Salazar challenged Stephen Miller, who drove Trump’s cruel anti-immigrant strategy and promotes it as the political strategy for the GOP nationally. Salazar’s South Florida colleague, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, voted for H.R. 6 in 2019. Last month, Diaz-Balart was a keynote speaker at Florida Thriving: a virtual conference to advance bipartisan immigration solutions in 2021.

Xenophobia is a losing strategy, but it persists

Meanwhile, the political arms of the House GOP caucus, the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), and the House GOP SuperPAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), ran scores of vicious anti-immigrant ads in both 2018 and 2020. Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has consistently taken aggressively anti-immigrant positions, which is reflected in his caucus’ political operation. Anti-immigrant messaging has been a mainstay of McCarthy’s
twitter account, @GOPLeader

McCarthy is echoing the anti-immigrant messages that have been the centerpiece of GOP politics in the Trump era and he is not alone. Attacking immigrants and immigration (and refugees, asylum seekers and people with visas) has also been a consistent theme among other Republican leaders, candidates, and political committees. McCarthy’s Deputy Whip, Steve Scalise, also used incendiary language, invoking “super-spreader caravans” in recent days in furtherance of their attacks on immigrants. Scalise, who once spoke at a white supremacist conference hosted by David Duke once claimed to be “David Duke without the baggage.” 

And, the GOP fear-mongering and messaging was encapsulated recently by long-time white nationalist candidate and TV personality Pat Buchanan:

America is headed, seemingly inexorably, to a future where a majority in this country traces its ancestry to Asia, Africa and Latin America, a future where this already fractionated nation is even more multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural than today…Is this how the Republic ends?

Even Republicans who don’t directly echo the anti-immigrant hardline exemplified by McCarthy and Buchanan are vulnerable to being tagged with the xenophobic messages of their party leaders. That could create additional political challenges for those members and candidates who do not want to be seen as racist xenophobes in 2022 and beyond.

That anti-immigrant attack ads don’t work was a lesson learned and repeated during the Trump era. Yet Trump and Miller are still setting the party’s political agenda. They tested out their latest anti-immigrant messages at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) conference in February. Anti-immigrant zealotry may still work with a segment of the Republican base, but it backfires with the majority of the public who want to fix the issue and move on to other pressing matters. Following the anti-immigrant and anti-immigration strategy should worry Republicans outside the deepest red districts and encourage Democrats to lean in and fight to see solutions enacted on a range of immigration issues. 

Let’s do a quick review of this strategy:

  • In the Virginia gubernatorial election in 2017, Steve Bannon predicted that Republican Ed Gillespie’s turn to a strategy of xenophobic dog-whistling would win him the election. “Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win,” said Stephen Bannon, of the anti-immigrant zealot Gillespie beat in the primary. “It was the Trump-Stewart talking points that got Gillespie close and even maybe to victory. It was embracing Trump’s agenda as personified by Corey’s platform.” In fact, the strategy backfired among voters of nearly every demographic and Ralph Northam won by 9 points. 
  • In May 2018, Stephen Miller boldly predicted Republicans would prevail using anti-immigrant strategies, telling Breitbart News, “The big fight this summer is going to be with the open borders Democratic caucus in Congress. That is the fundamental political contrast and political debate that is unfolding right now. The Democratic Party is at grave risk of completely marginalizing itself from the American voters…” Again, that strategy backfired and lead to historic wins by the Democrats in the 2018 midterms. 
  • In 2019, in the deep red states of Kentucky and Louisiana, Republicans’ xenophobic dog-whistle strategy was ineffective in the gubernatorial elections. 
  • Miller again ventured the same prediction in August 2020, telling Reuters that Joe Biden’s immigration stance would prove to be “a massive political vulnerability.” It wasn’t. Trump ran 157 anti-immigrant ads during the 2020 cycle and used his rallies to spew those messages. On the other side, Biden leaned into his promise to create a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants – and won. 

In spite of a clear track record of failure, Trump and Miller are pushing the GOP to again adopt a strategy heavy on xenophobic dog-whistles. The question is how Republicans who don’t want to be known as xenophobes can escape the taint of their leaders.

Yes, even a majority of Republicans support legalization

polling conducted for FWD.us and America’s Voice by Global Strategy Group, Garin-Hart-Yang and BSP Research found voters overwhelmingly prefer providing a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants over an approach of deporting them by a 79% to 21% margin. Even base Republican voters prefer citizenship over deportation by a 61% to 39% margin. 50% of base Republicans also support the Dream Act, with only 39% opposed. Despite the efforts of the party to end the protections for DACA recipients most want Congress to act to give them legal status. Additionally, for those in the party looking to expand outside their solid base, swing voters support the Dream act at 72% with only 16% opposed. Latinos also support the Dream Act at 85% with only 10% opposed, while African Americans support at 77% with only 7% opposed.

The American Election Eve Poll found voters had a similar preference for pathways to citizenship heading into the last election. When asked about establishing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who come forward, are up to date on their taxes, and pass a background check, 90% of Latinos, 90% of Black voters, 81% of Asians, 85% of American Indians, and 81% of white voters supported the idea.  

Now is the time to act

Republicans who want to expand their base and differentiate themselves from the Trump controlled faction of the party have an important chance with the Dream and Promise Act. The solution outlined in this vote is both the right thing and highly popular. A yes vote might incense the nativists in the party, but at the same time, it will demonstrate to the majority of American voters a willingness to deliver on real solutions. The political trade-offs here are clear. It’s up to these Republicans to decide if they want to wallow in the division and distraction of the past or step towards the future.