An upstart petition drive by House Republicans to force a vote on “Dreamer” immigration proposals is roiling the party as midterm elections loom.
Two Californians are taking prominent and opposing roles in the internal battle — one that’s revealing a deepening rift over how to handle President Donald Trump’s hostility toward immigrants.
At the root of the conflict are different interpretations about immigration in the two congressmen’s districts. And like the Californians, those differences have GOP politicians in other states also rolling the dice on what positions will matter most to their ability to keep seats in the November midterm elections.
On one side is GOP Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, Calif., who came out in opposition to the petition drive. With 218 signatures, a petition can force House leadership to allow members to vote on bills even if leadership has resisted allowing a procedure. According to POLITICO, McCarthy told GOP colleagues that he was worried that the petition drive and a vote could upset the GOP base and lead to the party losing control of the House in November. McCarthy is in line to become the next House speaker if the House if the GOP retains control. Trump won McCarthy’s district by 22 points.
On the other side is Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock, Calif., who announced on Thursday that Republicans are trying to avert a clash over the petition. He said Republicans want to come up with a deal in 24 hours that would lead to votes on various pieces of legislation related to Dreamers, young people who arrived here with parents, undocumented, and grew up here while parents were working at jobs and sinking roots. Denham won his last election with 52 percent of the vote. But Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the district by 3 percent.
But there’s more to the story.
Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity reported from McCarthy’s district on constituents and Dreamer supporters who were upset with McCarthy for failing to use his power to convince Republicans and Trump to legalize Dreamers. McCarthy’s district, along with Denham’s, is home to tens of thousands of Dreamers. One young man the Center interviewed is a star agribusiness college student—and his undocumented father has worked for the same farm employer for more than 10 years.
Only Congress can reform the current immigration system to open a path for Dreamers to earn legal status. The Dreamer nickname they go by is derived from the acronym of failed proposals to legalize them that go back to 2001.
In 2012, after years of Congress squabbling over the issue, many Dreamers began receiving protection from deportation and work permits if they qualified for DACA, a program that former President Barack Obama began as a humanitarian stop-gap measure. But Trump ordered a phase-out of DACA, and now Dreamers are living in fear of becoming undocumented as work permits expire.
When it comes to McCarthy’s and Denham’s districts, there are also business concerns to consider.
The districts are home to California’s massive agribusiness industry, which provides a huge quantity of food for Americans nationwide. Farm owners, who often lean Republican, have admitted that their businesses would collapse without immigrant workers. They’ve pressed Congress for years to both legalize current workers they don’t want to lose and to create a system that allows workers to come fill job shortages legally.
Businesses, in short, are not happy with full-scale attacks on immigrant workers or Dreamers.
McCarthy has acknowledged his district has been powered for decades by workers who are often undocumented. But he’s hinted at supporting a reform that only includes a “guest worker” solution, as the Center reported, along with greater border security. He’s also taken a position that no action on Dreamers can happen without border security.
In exchange for supporting a Dreamer solution, however, Trump has put forth demands that many Republicans were unable to get votes to approve. .
Trump has insisted on billions of dollars for a border wall that Congress has been unwilling to finance. He’s also insisted that Congress slash visas for legal immigration. Trump campaigned blaming legal immigration for lowering wages, which a preponderance of economist say isn’t true, as the Center also reported.
There’s another element California Republicans also have to consider: district demographics.
In addition to being heavily Democratic, California is also home to a rising Latino electorate. And because Latino citizens in the state are often closer to immigrant roots, they understand that Dreamers face impossible hurdles to obtaining legal status without changes Congress has to make.
Denham, whose faces a tough re-election battle in November, represents a district whose eligible voters were estimated at 26 percent Latino in January 2016, according to an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Research Center. That was before the Trump presidency and his attacks on immigrants. The population of the district was about 40 percent Latino, with about 44 percent of Latinos at that time eligible to vote.
On his Facebook page, Denham has posted a conversation with a young Dreamer his office helped to renew her DACA work permit before the phasing out begins. A number of people commenting on the post excoriated Denham, even calling him a “traitor” and saying they wouldn’t vote for him. A bipartisan proposal, the USA Act, which Denham supports, would legalize Dreamers. It also includes investments in technology to improve interdiction along the southern border.
Denham is not the only California Republican in the House with a rising Latino electorate.
Rep. David Valadao, Republican of Hanford, represents a district near McCarthy’s that’s home to a bigger Latino electorate. Pew estimated that 39 percent of eligible voters in Valadao’s district were Latino. The overall population is almost 76 percent Latino.
McCarthy’s seat, while judged to be relatively safe for him, isn’t immune to the challenges an increasing Latino electorate could pose. About 27 percent of those eligible to vote in the district are Latino, and almost 41 percent of the district’s population is Latino.
The petition drive Denham and Valadao supported would require 218 signatures — including at least 25 Republicans and all 193 Democrats. As of Thursday, the petition lacked only five Republican signatures. Only two Democrats had signed the petition, as others stood by, waiting to see what would happen.
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