Vulnerable Republicans See Immigration as Political Salvation

Vulnerable Republicans See Immigration as Political Salvation


Originally published by The NY Times

In all of his campaigns for the House, Representative Jeff Denham has never seen anything quite like the rolling circus that trails him through his sprawling district in California’s Central Valley — the “Dump Denham” signs, the papier-mâché effigies, the shouting.

He says it does not faze him, but there is nothing like the political gallows to focus the mind of an endangered politician, and Mr. Denham, a Republican, is responding in a way that touches almost everybody here in California farm country: He is leading the charge on Capitol Hill to pressure Speaker Paul D. Ryan to hold a vote on legislation to protect the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

Nearly two dozen other House Republicans — about half of them politically vulnerable and many in districts with large Hispanic populations — have followed suit, affixing their signatures to a petition that is just a few votes short of forcing Mr. Ryan to act. If it works, it will push the party into a divisive, and politically risky, election year debate on immigration.

A vote this summer to help undocumented immigrants could demoralize President Trump’s most ardent supporters and depress Republican turnout in November. A vote to toughen immigration rules and harm the young Dreamers would further energize Democratic voters. To avoid such a showdown, the speaker has scheduled a two-hour meeting on immigration with his rank and file when lawmakers return to Washington next week.

“There have been some critics who say that this could cost us our majority,” said Mr. Denham, who is facing a crowded field of five Democrats and one other Republican in Tuesday’s unusual “two party” primary election here. “My concern is if we do nothing, it could cost us our majority. So yes, it’s risky. But it’s the right thing to do.”

From Miami to the Rocky Mountain West to Texas and to California, the petition’s signatories form a renegade band that is not only making life difficult for Mr. Ryan but also standing up to the conservative Freedom Caucus, which so often dictates policy in the House. Of the 23 Republicans on the petition, 11 are in districts that are clearly in play. Another five have announced their retirements or have already left the House.

Mr. Denham has been trailed by protesters carrying papier-mâché effigies at recent campaign events.CreditAlpana Aras-King for The New York Times

“The Freedom Caucus has been bullying Ryan from Day 1, particularly on immigration,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrants’ rights group. “And yet the Republican majority depends on districts like Denham’s.”

Here in California’s 10th Congressional District, a rich agricultural region where the roads are lined with dairy farms and orderly rows of almond trees, it is difficult to overestimate the effect that immigration policy has on daily life. The voices of Mr. Denham’s constituents make that much clear.

Christine Hackler, 70, an almond farmer and registered Democrat who voted for Donald J. Trump in 2016, complained that laborers were not showing up for work, for fear that immigration authorities will conduct a sweep and deport them. Like many agricultural employers here, she is up in arms over Congress’s failure to create a new guest worker program for laborers — and has told Mr. Denham so. She has already cast an early ballot for Mr. Denham in Tuesday’s primary: “He’s not perfect, but he’s trying.”

Uriel Vallejo, 17, a high school senior here in Turlock, said he decided to go to college close to home, opting against a school in San Diego because it would be too risky for his undocumented parents to visit him so close to the border. He spends his afternoons canvassing for one of Mr. Denham’s Democratic opponents, Virginia Madueño, and sees Mr. Denham’s immigration push as “an act for him to get re-elected.”

Ann Strahm, 50, a sociology professor at California State University, Stanislaus, said she has students who have asked, “Would you hide me?” if immigration authorities turned up at their homes.

As a member of Be the Change Turlock, a new grass-roots group of self-described “pissed-off middle-aged ladies who are into arts and crafts,” Ms. Strahm is among those who have been dogging Mr. Denham with papier-mâché effigies and on social media, with pictures of milk cartons featuring the congressman and the word “missing” in bold capital letters.

Yet though she is working hard to unseat Mr. Denham — in large part because of his vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act — she sounds almost sympathetic when she talks about his immigration stance, especially toward young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

“His outward expressions toward people who are undocumented is caring,” she said. “I don’t give him much, but I can give him that.”

Mr. Denham, 50, an Air Force veteran who owns a plastics company and a small almond farm, said the status of Dreamers “is personal for me.” His father-in-law, a onetime farmworker from Mexico, came to the United States on a now-defunct guest worker program and ultimately became a citizen as a result of a 1986 immigration law that conservatives still deride as “amnesty.” Mr. Denham says he helped with the paperwork.

Latinos account for nearly 45 percent of the population here in the 10th District, though just 26 percent of the electorate. The district runs from the San Francisco exurb of Tracy to the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Mr. Denham won the district in 2016 by three percentage points — as did Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.

Around the country, the electoral math for those Republicans who have signed the petition is much the same — and in some cases worse.

In South Florida, Representative Carlos Curbelo, who is leading the petition drive along with Mr. Denham, is seeking a third term in a district that Mrs. Clinton won by 16 points, four points more than he did. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates his race a tossup, even though his likely Democratic challenger, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, is a virtual unknown. (Mr. Denham’s race is rated as a tossup too.)

In Colorado, Representative Mike Coffman, a five-term incumbent in yet another tossup race, started studying Spanish in 2013 after his district’s lines were redrawn to put him in a district where one in five residents is Latino. Mrs. Clinton won there in 2016 by nine points; Mr. Coffman won by eight.

In Texas, Representative Will Hurd, who touts his résumé as a former C.I.A. agent — and whose sprawling district includes roughly 800 miles of the United States’ southern border — is facing a tough challenge from Gina Ortiz Jones, a Democrat and a former Air Force Intelligence officer and Iraq war veteran. He won his district by one point in 2016; Mrs. Clinton carried it by three.

“People every election say I have a difficult election,” Mr. Hurd said in an interview, dismissing the notion that politics is at work. “This is the right thing to do.”

Along with a Democrat, Representative Pete Aguilar of California, Mr. Hurd has sponsored legislation that would offer the Dreamers a path to citizenship while also beefing up border security. The bill, which has Mr. Denham’s backing, is one of four measures — including a hard-line measure offered by the Freedom Caucus — that would be taken up by the House if the petition is successful.

While many Republicans are railing against so-called sanctuary cities, Mr. Denham and the others are walking a fine line, trying to appease conservatives while putting just enough distance between themselves and the president to attract support from independents and crossover Democrats.

Mr. Denham considers himself “fairly conservative” — he also supports building the wall that Mr. Trump has proposed at the southern border with Mexico — and votes with the president 97 percent of the time, according to the FiveThirtyEight website. In Washington, he is active in the Republican Main Street Partnership, a coalition of business-minded Republicans whose president, Sarah Chamberlain, says a Denham loss would be an awful harbinger for the party.

“If Denham loses, Nancy Pelosi is speaker,” she said, referring to the House Democratic leader.

As they are around the country, Democrats here are energized. Local chapters of anti-Trump groups like Indivisible and Swing Left have sprung up, and the women of Be the Change Turlock meet every Monday night to plot strategy. They and other critics see Mr. Denham’s immigration push as too little, too late, arguing that if he really wanted to help Dreamers, he would have pushed his petition a long time ago.

“He’s grandstanding,” said Cathy Doo, 63, a retired electric and gas company employee who complains that Mr. Denham “votes Republican, straight down the line.”

Meantime, the demonstrations are continuing; last week, Democrats staged a “Dump Denham” rally at a busy street corner, and when Mr. Denham spoke at a Memorial Day ceremony, a group of protesters — trying to behave modestly so as not to offend veterans — turned their backs.

Mr. Denham, who says the protests are “very manufactured” and go away “as soon as the press leaves,” insists he is not worried. To those who accuse him of being a clone of Mr. Trump, he has a ready reply: “It seems to me that I’m standing up to my own party.”


An earlier version of this article misidentified the state that Representative Pete Aguilar is from. He is a Californian.

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