Few issues embody the political divide between Sen. Jeff Flake and President Donald Trump like immigration.
While Trump and his nativist supporters take a hard line on illegal immigration, the Arizona senator has long sought a comprehensive solution that would lead to a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
As Flake said last week, when he issued a scathing indictment of Trump while announcing he would not seek re-election, a “pro-immigration” Republican like himself would find it difficult to be nominated in today’s GOP.
But it’s a Republican-led Congress that finds itself working against Trump’s six-month deadline to find a legislative solution for about 800,000 so-called Dreamers, who are protected from deportation through an Obama administration program that the president wants to eliminate.
Flake is a longtime supporter of offering Dreamers a path to citizenship, and with the burden of re-election off his back, fellow senators in both parties expect him to work toward forging a solution on this and other immigration issues until his term ends in early January 2019.
“I think what he’s doing is challenging his party to reconsider some of their positions,” said Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who joined with Flake and other senators in 2013 to write the “Gang of Eight” immigration overhaul bill that passed the Senate with 68 votes.
The four Senate Republicans in the “Gang of Eight” are no longer together on immigration. Durbin is working with GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on a bill that would grant citizenship to the Dreamers enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona have distanced themselves from the gang, but want a legislative fix on DACA.
Flake, urging compromise, has said he’s willing to take a deal on DACA any way it comes. He introduced legislation of his own that would fund the first 74 miles of Trump’s much-desired wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in return for a path to citizenship for Dreamers, who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children.
At the ballot box
Immigration issues, especially DACA, could shape key congressional races in the 2018 midterms. In Arizona and Nevada, home of two high-profile Senate races next year, Latinos make up 21.5 percent and 17.2 percent of eligible voters, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Kelli Ward, a former state senator who was geared up to challenge Flake in Arizona’s GOP primary, said the senator repeats “Democrat talking point again and again and again” when it comes to immigration. And Trump repeatedly chastised Flake in tweets, including calling him “weak and ineffective” and criticizing his record on border security.
Flake is far from the first Republican conservative to pay a political price for his views on immigration.
In 2014, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor tried to appeal to GOP primary voters by insisting he supported piecemeal immigration bills but not a comprehensive overhaul measure. Cantor suffered a shocking primary defeat to Dave Brat, who ran on a tough-on-immigration platform and went on to win the House seat.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the center-right National Immigration Forum, called Flake “the northern point” for both parties when it comes to finding a way to compromise on immigration, and said the Arizona Republican “has provided a moral center in the debate.”
Durbin said he believes Flake is in a position to have an outsized effect on the debate during his final months in office.
“Jeff was an early sponsor of the Dream Act,” said Durbin, referencing the bill he and Graham have introduced numerous times. “I’m going to appeal to him to play an active and visible role, and I think some will join him because they respect him.”
Sen. Kamala Harris said she believes Flake can be a persuasive voice among Republicans now that he’s freed from the pressures of trying to be renominated and re-elected. “Perhaps he can speak some reason to his colleagues,” the California Democrat said.
Some Republicans are already trying to find consensus. Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, who introduced what he considers a GOP-friendly path to citizenship with Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, said that even though Flake is a longtime supporter of the Dreamers, “he wasn’t the sole person carrying that issue.”
“Obviously, Senator Flake’s been very engaged with that, but there are multiple others who have as well, so I don’t think that’ll have an effect,” Lankford said.
Durbin said a growing number of Republicans interested in protecting Dreamers gives him encouragement for a Senate without Flake.
“My experience with current Senate Republicans is encouraging because so many have come forward and talked to me about the Dream Act,” he said. “They haven’t committed their votes yet, but they want to enter into a conversation about it.”
Seizing the moment
Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, the pro-immigration group backed by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, said he believes the trend of Republicans like Lankford and Tillis getting involved on immigration will continue. If Republicans and Trump can band together to pass legislation protecting Dreamers, it might encourage more to get involved, he said.
“This is kind of the one point of consensus and where you have the one opportunity to get something done now,” Schulte said.
As for Flake’s worry that there’s no longer room for pro-immigration Republicans in the modern GOP, Republicans are mostly keeping silent. Democrats say they hope it’s not the case.
“I find it very difficult to believe because it’s just so troubling that that would be the case,” Harris said.