Next Steps on DACA Hold Peril for GOP
Back in July, as Sens. Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin promoted their bipartisan effort to codify protections for children of undocumented immigrants, known as DACA, Graham warned of a “moment of reckoning” on the horizon.
"The question for the Republican Party is, what do we tell these people? How do we treat them?” said Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “Here's my answer: We treat them fairly. We do not pull the rug out from under them.”
Just two months later, the moment of reckoning has arrived ahead of schedule for the GOP. The Trump administration last week announced an end to DACA, while urging Congress to craft a permanent solution to the rules put in place unilaterally by President Obama.
Congressional leaders and the president himself have signaled that they indeed hope to approve a replacement, rather than scrap the rules entirely. They have a six-month window to do so before DACA is set to expire.
The deadline forces a difficult conversation within the Republican Party on an issue that has starkly divided both lawmakers and candidates: between anti-immigration hardliners, such as the president, and others, like Graham, who believe the GOP cannot survive if it does not expand its reach among Latino voters.
Republicans had been in no rush to settle these sticky differences. Now, the GOP must decide whether there is greater political peril in doing nothing, and letting DACA lapse, or in acting to save it. And they will do so just as the midterms are heating up with the start of the Republican primary season early next year.
The president’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has urged a hard-line immigration stance for the president and Republicans, said he is “worried about losing the House now because of this, because of DACA.”
“My fear is that ... if this goes all the way down to its logical conclusion, in February and March it will be a civil war inside the Republican Party that will be every bit as vitriolic as 2013,” Bannon said in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday. “And to me, doing that in the springboard of primary season for 2018 is extremely unwise.”
The DACA decision marks a next chapter in an ongoing debate among Republicans over immigration policy. George W. Bush sought to bridge the divide late in his presidency with an ambitious immigration reform plan, coupling enhanced border security measures with legalization for an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. But his efforts fell short.
After Republicans failed to win the White House in 2012, however, the party gave the issue another look. In the Republican National Committee’s 2013 “Growth and Opportunity Project,” a candid assessment of the GOP’s weaknesses, party leaders concluded: “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.”
But the arc of the 2016 Republican presidential primary set the GOP on yet another course. While Jeb Bush described illegal immigration as “an act of love,” Republican voters instead cheered Trump’s rallying cry to “build the wall” on the U.S. border with Mexico.
Trump will be a key variable as congressional Republicans consider how to address DACA. Many Republicans are hopeful that the White House will take the lead. And in one sense, the president might be uniquely steeled from any political backlash in pushing for a permanent fix.
“Given his deep and abiding credibility with portions of the Republican base on this issue, it may be possible to do things with his support that may be politically difficult without it,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist and onetime aide to former Speaker John Boehner.
But Trump has his own political fortunes to consider — and even as polls show the majority of Republican voters support a policy in the mold of DACA, illegal immigration remains a powerful, animating wedge among the party’s fervent base.
Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who is among the staunchest anti-immigration voices in the party, welcomed the president’s DACA decision as a “chance [to] restore Rule of Law.” But King also warned against Republican lawmakers approving similar protections.
“Delaying so [Republican] Leadership can push Amnesty is Republican suicide,” King tweeted.
So far Republican leaders seem to believe, on the contrary, that inaction on DACA would be the fatal course. Tellingly, Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has thrown his support behind writing DACA into law.
Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Stivers (pictured), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, urged that Congress “take action to create a permanent, legal and orderly immigration system -- which includes addressing DACA recipients.”
Said Steel, “There’s a chance for Congress to pleasantly surprise people by getting something done on this.”