When it comes to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, there is little daylight among most Hispanic members of Congress, regardless of party affiliation.
President Donald Trump has said he will phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, but gave Congress a six-month window to come up with a legislative fix. By and large, Hispanic lawmakers from both parties criticized the president’s decision and said Congress needs to protect immigrants covered by DACA, also known as Dreamers, so named after the proposed DREAM Act that would provide them with a path to legal status.
“They’re as American as apple pie, except for the paperwork, and to think we’re going to deport them back to whatever country, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador — this makes no sense because they’ve been working, they’ve been studying; now they’re productive members of our society,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told Roll Call recently.
“I hope we can do the right thing. I hope that we can find a permanent legislative fix for these Dreamers,” the Florida Republican added. Ros-Lehtinen, who came to the United States from Cuba when she was eight, is the first Latina and first Cuban-American elected to Congress.
On immigration, she has company among Republicans in her own state. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents 25th District that neighbors Ros-Lehtinen’s Miami-based 27th, was long a member of a bipartisan working group on immigration. And the Sunshine State’s junior senator, Republican Marco Rubio, has co-sponsored comprehensive immigration legislation in the past with Democrats.
Rep. Ruben Kihuen was undocumented when he first came to the United States from Mexico as an eight-year-old. The Nevada Democrat pointed out that divided government produced the immigration laws that provided him the pathway to citizenship that eventually enabled him to run for Congress.
“That shows you how powerful and how great this country is. That it is willing to give an opportunity to an immigrant family who is willing to work hard for it,” Kihuen said, adding, “All we wanted was an opportunity in the land of opportunity.”
“I’m a Democrat serving in Congress. Yet I’m here today as a U.S. citizen thanks to a Republican president,” he said.
Getting such a result became that much harder with the manner in which Trump acted, said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate.
“It’s a manufactured crisis,” the Nevada Democrat said. “You have the administration rescinding [DACA]. If they really wanted to address this issue, they would have said, … ‘Let’s work on this. Pass the DREAM Act. I’ll sign the bill. Let’s get it done.’ And then we work on our colleagues to really show them why this is so important.”
Ros-Lehtinen is frustrated at what she called mixed messages from Trump, who made harsh enforcement on immigration a touchstone of his campaign and early administration, but now says he has a lot of affection for Dreamers and might revisit the policy.
“It makes it harder for us to know what to do,” she said. “It doesn’t make it harder for me, but some of my colleagues say, ‘Well, does that mean maybe I don’t have to take this tough vote? Because he’s going to revisit it anyway?’”
Rep. Ruben Gallego, the first Colombian-American elected to Congress, sees it as part of his job to push colleagues about issues like immigration important to his constituents and fellow Hispanics.
“It reminds you of why I’m here and the other members are here advocating for the Latino community,” the Arizona Democrat said. “Because I believe if we weren’t here, there wouldn’t be as strong an advocacy as you see now.”
President Donald Trump’s victory last year was widely understood to challenge predictions of a coming surge in Democratic-leaning Latino voters that would forever alter the American electorate.
But as Latino political leaders kick off National Hispanic Heritage Month this week, some are pointing to Congress to argue that Trump’s win was an anomaly.
As Trump was celebrating his success with white working-class voters, nine congressional districts and Puerto Rico welcomed new Latino lawmakers. Six of them — all but one of them Democrats — replaced white or African-American incumbents.
“While we lost at the top of the ticket, the untold story of the election was the dramatic increase in Latino participation rates that allowed for a record number of Latinos to be elected to office,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, an outreach group backed by Democratic activists, and the national deputy director of voter outreach and mobilization for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “There are bright spots.”
In the Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada became the country’s first Latina senator. Her historic win was heralded as a “silver lining” in an otherwise bleak year for Hispanic liberals. The new members added to a growing number of Latinos in Congress, who are slowly becoming more diverse.
The number of Hispanic members in the 115th Congress — 41 — is more than double than what it was 20 years ago.
In addition to Cortez Masto, whose grandfather immigrated from Mexico, new Hispanic members included Democrats Adriano Espaillat of New York, the first Dominican-American elected to Congress, and Darren Soto, the first Puerto Rican to represent Florida in the House. The other members who took seats previously occupied by non-Latinos were Democrats Ruben Kihuen of Nevada, and California’s Nanette Barragán and Salud Carbajal, and Republican Brian Mast of Florida.
Kihuen and Espaillat are the first formerly undocumented members to serve in Congress.
When those members talk about policy issues affecting Latinos, they can also draw on their own lives and families.
“I don’t let that pass me by, the fact that I have a grandfather who came from Chihuahua, Mexico,” Cortez Masto said in an interview. “I don’t forget that. Because there are many families who want the same opportunity, and that’s what this is about. Making sure that I’m tearing down those barriers to help those families as well.”
Kihuen, whose parents immigrated from Mexico when he was 8, talked about their decision to sacrifice their careers as schoolteachers to give him a better life.
“We didn’t come here with a lot of money,” he said in an interview. “We didn’t have a lot of contacts.”
His family’s story also reflects the demographic changes in Nevada, where they eventually settled after his father received a promotion from a job picking strawberries in California, he said.
“Our family was not the only family looking to migrate to a state that had a lot of growth, a lot of job opportunities,” he said.
Electoral gains by Latinos have yet to match their proportions in the population. And even though the number of eligible Latino voters has grown exponentially in recent years, their turnout at the polls has been lower than other groups.
That’s partly because almost half of the 27.3 million Latinos eligible to cast ballots are millennials — an age cohort notoriously difficult to engage in elections. Latino organizers also blame both parties, which they say have failed to invest in voter engagement on the ground. Latino voters are also underrepresented in presidential elections because their electoral college votes are concentrated in the handful of states where their population is largest.
The Hispanic population’s inability to realize their full potential at the polls has some questioning whether they ever will.
“We are arriving at a do-or-die moment for Latino politics,” said Roberto Suro, a professor of journalism and public policy at at the University of Southern California and the former director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “The idea that there is a powerful rising political force that has a coherent agenda, and that requires attention from national leaders … has been battered so much over, now, several years that continued battering is going to have to raise questions as to whether it’s a meaningful concept.”
But others counsel patience. Generational change takes time, they say. The Latino surge might start as a trickle.
And 2018 represents another opportunity: Latinos make up more than 20 percent of the eligible voters in 10 out of 62 House races deemed competitive by Inside Elections with Nathan Gonzales, according to a Roll Call analysis.
“If you are waiting for the switch to turn on overnight, that’s not going to happen,” said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a senior analyst at Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm. “You will see gradual increases in turnout. The second and third generation will be more engaged than their parents and grandparents.”
The majority of 2016 post-mortems focused on Trump’s ability to speak to overlooked white working-class voters, partly by cashing in on fears that immigrants illegally crossing the Mexican border were taking American jobs. Those analyses also highlighted Clinton’s lackluster performance among Latinos and the early exit polls’ surprising indication that Trump had outperformed 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney in that demographic — in spite of campaign rhetoric characterizing some Mexicans as “rapists.”
But some Latino organizers say those analyses are misleading. The Latino Victory Project disputed the early exit polls. Together with BlueLabs, a data analytics company founded by alumni of the Obama campaign, they conducted their own analysis of individual-level data from the national voter file.
They found that Latino turnout was higher in 2016 than 2012 — 58 percent versus 54 percent. They also found that 28 percent of the 2016 turnout among Latinos came from first-time voters, compared to 15 percent for African-Americans and 16 percent for whites. Those numbers are particularly high in some states with growing Latino populations, such as Georgia, North Carolina and Illinois, that have only recently emerged as Latino recruiting grounds.
“That’s the future,” said Alex of the Latino Victory Project. “Those are the new battleground states, and those are Latino states.”
Latino organizers say Trump’s performance in office, including his insistence on constructing a wall along the Mexican border and his commission to investigate voter fraud, could present an opportunity to energize new Latino voters in 2018 and 2020 — although Trump’s recent backtracking on plans to repeal an Obama-era amnesty program for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children has some in his base questioning where he really stands on immigration.
“He could prove to be the biggest Latino organizer of all time,” Alex said.
Some Republicans also see an untapped resource in Latino voters.
“There is this notion that Hispanics are unwinnable by the Republican Party,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the New American Economy, a bipartisan coalition of business leaders that advocates an immigration overhaul. “That has been proven false over and over.”
After Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 — a dramatic drop from President George W. Bush’s 40 percent in 2004 — the Republican National Committee concluded that the party needed to expand its reach to Latino voters and embrace a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
Trump has disregarded much of those recommendations. But his successful strategy of appealing to white, working-class voters will likely become outdated quickly, Robbins said. White voters are shrinking as a proportion of the electorate, and the percentage without a college education is also going down, he said.
“Ignoring Hispanic voters going forward is an extremely dangerous political strategy,” he said.
A few Republican groups and donors, including the the deep-pocketed Koch brothers, have embraced outreach to Latinos.
The LIBRE initiative, a Koch brothers’ funded nonprofit, has received millions in contributions since its founding in 2011. They offer English classes throughout the country, citizenship classes in Miami, and drivers’ education classes in Nevada.
“What that does is help us connect with the community,”said Daniel Garza, LIBRE’s president. As elections draw nearer, they will also recruit volunteers for door-to-door outreach, he said.
Garza said down-ballot races in 2016 showed that voters would judge candidates they trust separately from Trump, and that candidates don’t have to be of Hispanic heritage to represent the Latino values of their constituents. He also said Democrats were mistaken to assume that Latinos will automatically lean toward liberal candidates who support an immigration overhaul.
“I think you will crash and burn if it’s just about social values,” he said. “If you are someone who reaches out and engages Latinos on all the issues you engage on with all other Americans, you are going to go further.”
He pointed to Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who campaigned in Latino neighborhoods in his 2014 Senate run, focusing on job creation and smaller government. Gardner won with 48 percent of the Latino vote, according to a LIBRE analysis, the same percentage as Mark Udall, the incumbent Democrat he unseated. The number is striking, considering that just four years earlier, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet winning 65 percent of that demographic was considered notable.
“People thought the Latino vote was baked in” for Democrats, Garza said. “Cory Gardner proved them wrong.”
Some analysts, though, said the potential gains for Republicans among Latinos are limited.
“Most of the under-45 Latinos are pretty liberal, so they are selling a message out there that doesn’t have much resonance,” Damore of the University of Nevada said.
But Damore and others said Democrats have also failed to invest in the Latino vote.
“If you talk to white political consultants in D.C. on the Democratic side, thy will tell you not to spend any money on Latino voters because Latinos vote at such low rates,” said Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions and a professor of political science and Chicana/o studies at UCLA. “That creates a cycle of undermobilization in which Latinos get less outreach, so they vote at lower rates, and white consultants say they vote at lower rates, so they don’t give them any outreach.”
Recent victories for Latino candidates also create a challenge for coming years, because the number of seats in Hispanic majority areas that are not occupied by Latino candidates is shrinking, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“If you want to make a significant increase in the number of Latinos in the House, you will need crossover candidates,” he said. “They will have to appeal to broad constituencies. This is not happening enough.”
He said both parties — but particularly the Democrats — have done a poor job grooming Latino candidates in regions not traditionally considered Hispanic. And they are also neglecting early groundwork in districts with strong Latino populations that they should easily win.
That’s an opinion shared by Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan Latino voter participation group active in 14 states. She said she has yet to see strong ground operations by Democrats in many of areas.
“Why do Democrats keep insisting certain districts aren’t worth their time and effort?” she said. “The Latino electorate does vote, in spite of what people say.”
Jason Dick contributed to this report.
The week of Sept. 11 is coming to a close, and it was another eventful one. President Donald Trump dined on Wednesday with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, after which there was a debate about whether a deal was reached on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and border security.
“Hamilton” actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda was spotted several times on the Hill this week as he lobbied for arts funding. And discussions of a tax overhaul continued this week as it became clear the GOP wants to avoid another health care-like debacle.
Here is the week in photos:
Half of New Jersey voters said the state’s senior Democratic senator does not deserve to be re-elected next year, according to a Quinnipiac Poll released Thursday.
Only 20 percent said he deserves to be re-elected. Thirty percent said they didn't know.
Menendez, who’s on trial for federal corruption, suffered from low approval ratings in the poll. Thirty-one percent of voters said they approve of the way he's handling his job, while 49 percent said they disapproved.
Menendez is on trial for allegedly receiving bribes from Florida ophthalmologist Salomon Melgen in exchange for using his office to benefit Melgen. The trial, which is expected to last about two months, is in its second week in Newark.
Republicans are hoping that if the senator is convicted this year and resigns, GOP Gov. Chris Christie would have an opportunity to appoint a Republican replacement before his gubernatorial term is over.
Quinnipiac asked voters how the senator should be replaced if he is “forced to leave” the Senate. Only 3 percent said they’d like Christie to appoint himself to the seat. Christie’s job approval rating is 16 percent in the same poll.
About a quarter of voters said they’d want the governor to appoint someone else to the seat. But an overwhelmingly majority (68 percent) said they’d want Christie to wait for the new governor to make the appointment.
The gubernatorial election is Nov. 7, with the new governor likely to be sworn in early next year. Democrat Phil Murphy led Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno 58 to 33 percent among likely voters in a Quinnipiac Poll released Wednesday.
For Thursday’s poll, Quinnipiac conducted live interviews with 1,121 registered voters on landlines and cell phones between Sept. 7 -12. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percent.
Menendez, who was first elected to the House in 1992, won election to the Senate by 9 points in 2006. He won re-election by nearly 20 points in 2012. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Senate race Solid Democratic.
A bipartisan effort to enhance election security is among the priorities for Senate Democrats as part of the debate on the annual defense authorization measure.
“The consensus of 17 U.S. Intelligence agencies was that Russia, a foreign adversary, interfered in our elections. Make no mistake: Their success in 2016 will encourage them to try again,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday. “We have state elections in a couple of months and the 2018 election is a little more than a year away. We must improve our defenses now to ensure we’re prepared.”
The amendment has the backing of a number of national security experts with Republican backgrounds. On Monday, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, former CIA Director James Woolsey, former House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers and retired Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer of the London Center for Policy Research wrote to Senate leaders and the Armed Services Committee leadership to push the effort.
“Although election administration is the province of state and local governments, the federal government has a responsibility to support the states and ‘provide for the common defense,’” the former officials wrote. “We do not expect the states to defend themselves against kinetic attacks by hostile foreign powers, nor should we leave them to defend against foreign cyberattacks on their own.”
Among the possible uses of grant funds to states authorized under the amendment would be cyberdefenses for voting systems and postelection audit systems, as well as paper trail technology.
“On other matters of national security, the federal government provides states and municipalities with grants to fund security personnel and first responders on the front lines of addressing threats. Given the longstanding role of the federal government in elections and the seriousness of emerging risks, the issue of voting security should be no different,” the officials wrote in their letter.
Klobuchar’s involvement comes, in part, from her role as the ranking Democrat on the Rules and Administration Committee, which has significant jurisdiction over election matters.
It was not clear as the Senate broke for lunch Tuesday how many amendments would ultimately be considered to the fiscal 2018 defense bill, despite the efforts of leaders on both sides of the aisle.
Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has pledged to object to any procedural efforts to truncate debate on the defense policy bill until he gets a vote on an amendment that would roll back the authorizations for use of military force against Iraq and Afghanistan, which date to the early period of the George W. Bush presidency.
If there is no agreement with Paul, the Senate may try to push forward with the defense policy bill without opportunities for any amendments.
But if there are amendments, Klobuchar and Graham will have Schumer’s backing when it comes time to compile a manager’s package of amendments or to get a standalone vote.
“The Graham-Klobuchar amendment would greatly strengthen our defenses, helping prepare states for the inevitable cyberattacks that threaten the integrity of our elections,” Schumer said Tuesday. “We should pass it as part of the NDAA.”