In Donald Trump’s America, the immigration debate has grown ugly.
Images of undocumented children, separated from their parents at the border and held in cages inside a former Walmart, dominate the news cycle, leading Trump’s critics to invoke the horrors of Nazi Germany. And Trump’s rhetoric has only intensified, as he warns of subhuman immigrants transforming American neighborhoods from Long Island to California into “blood-stained killing fields.”
It is against this backdrop that the 2018 midterm elections unfold. With 35 Senate seats and the entire House up for grabs, most analysts say Democrats stand a chance of retaking at least the House, where they need a net gain of 23 seats to topple the GOP. But they face an uphill battle to pick up two seats in the Senate, where 10 Democratic incumbents are running in states Trump carried in 2016.
There’s little question as to how Republicans will frame immigration, starting with the president.
“If you want your communities to be safe, if you want your schools to be safe, if you want your country to be safe, then you must go out and get the Democrats the hell out of office,” Trump said at a rally in Tennessee last month.
Democrats have their own story to pitch to voters — in their party, across the aisle and to independents seeking a middle ground.
For 18 months, Democrats have blocked Trump’s efforts to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, strip funding from so-called sanctuary cities and roll back asylum laws so he can more easily deport children and victims of domestic violence. On June 22, he tweeted that Republicans should put immigration legislation on hold until after November and focus on widening their majority in the midterms because Democrats “are just playing games.”
But Democrats say they’re protecting innocent families from the deportation “machine.” And Trump’s June 20 reversal on the family separation policy — a product of his “zero tolerance” for anyone who tries to cross the border illegally — underscores their message.
Democrats also hope to tap public sympathy for the so-called Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who could face deportation if Trump ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Democrats are already invoking the Dreamers against a slew of House GOP incumbents in districts where Hillary Clinton performed well in 2016, and will likely do so in Senate races in Arizona, Nevada and other states with large Latino electorates.
“They ended DACA, they’re putting 800,000 people’s lives at risk, and they didn’t pass the Dream Act,” said Tyler Moran, who worked for President Barack Obama and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, before taking charge of the Immigration Hub, a group of former Obama administration officials and congressional staffers promoting progressive immigration policies ahead of the midterms. “I know Republicans will be arguing, ‘I did everything I could,’ and we’ll be trying to tell a story that they didn’t.”
Democrats have a shot at taking back Congress if they can find a way to play defense on public safety issues like sanctuary cities and the MS-13 gang, and offense on Dreamers and migrant rights. And if the playbook works, they believe they will have gained something even more valuable: the key to neutralizing Trump’s immigration rhetoric before the higher-stakes 2020 presidential campaign.
Democrats, ‘be careful’
It’s no surprise that Republicans are winding up on immigration, considering it’s been their go-to wedge issue for years, and the campaign rhetoric is well-rehearsed: Democrats care more about protecting undocumented immigrants than about the safety of the American people. Studies have found no correlation between sanctuary policies and high crime rates, but the attack ad still writes itself.
“Most people in Pennsylvania don’t understand creating sanctuaries for people who are here illegally, where gang members can be protected,” said GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, an immigration hard-liner running to unseat Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. “I believe most people in Pennsylvania understand sanctuary cities aren’t good for them, their families or the country.”
Some are concerned that unless Democrats have a plan to counter, they could get rolled. Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, a vice president at Third Way, a think tank that helps elect moderate Democrats in red and purple states, is among those worried.
Watch: McConnell Touts Bipartisan Immigration Fix, Schumer Warns of Trump Interference
“Democrats are very uncomfortable talking about [sanctuary cities] because they know they can get themselves into trouble,” she said.
Her unease isn’t without merit. Democrats have struggled to outline exactly why they support sanctuaries. Some say they’re a crucial check on Trump’s immigration agenda. Most cite local law enforcers who say such policies help foster relationships between police officers and immigrant communities, where people might not report a crime if they think they could be deported.
Some Democrats on the ballot in Trump-won states try to avoid the issue entirely.
Donnelly and Stabenow joined fellow Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia to vote in February in favor of stripping federal grants from jurisdictions in violation of federal immigration laws. But it’s unlikely that will stop Trump and the GOP from hitting them on the issue in November. One strategy that might help Democrats is standing with local law enforcement officials in the hopes of shifting the public’s focus from immigration to public safety.
“If you’re . . . standing with your sheriff, that’s pretty persuasive, as opposed to this humanitarian argument about protecting immigrants and creating a safe space for them,” said Third Way’s Erickson Hatalsky. “People don’t put that on their highest priority list.”
Montana Sen. Jon Tester, another at-risk incumbent who became a top Trump target after he torpedoed the White House’s pick for secretary of Veterans Affairs in April, indicates he’ll likely follow the Third Way approach.
“I think every one of the bills that’s been a sanctuary city vote has had a poison pill in it,” Tester said. “I’m no fan of sanctuary cities and there are none in Montana — none, zero, nada, kaput. But the bottom line is that law enforcement’s important and we’ll explain our side. Public safety is important.”
Some Democratic strategists don’t share Third Way’s anxiety. They point to last year’s race for governor in Virginia, where Republican Ed Gillespie invested heavily in an unsuccessful effort to paint Democrat Ralph Northam as weak on MS-13. Another example they cite is the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, where now-Rep. Conor Lamb beat back similar attacks in March in a closely watched toss-up race. “The Republicans tend to get very excited about this and then get over their skis,” said Chris Hayden, communications director for the Senate Majority PAC, which is trying to elect Democrats.
Based on Lamb’s race in Pennsylvania, Hayden said he thinks Republicans are overestimating the attraction of their tax overhaul — polls have shown its popularity steadily declining — and that they’ll be quick to pivot to immigration when they start to get nervous.
“When they decided taxes wasn’t working, they moved on to this issue, but it didn’t really move the needle,” he said. “They haven’t shown evidence that this is a real game-changer.”
Some experts actually see the attacks as an opening for Democrats to shift toward safer ground.
Matt Barreto, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who also runs the research and polling firm Latino Decisions, said Democrats who come under fire for their positions on sanctuary cities have an easy way out: Dreamers.
“They can pivot to the DACA issue and the Dreamer issue and say, ‘If anyone is making our country less safe and less productive, it’s Republicans for canceling DACA,’” Barreto said.
Trump’s decision to try and end DACA and ask Congress to replace the Obama-era program with a permanent solution for Dreamers exposed an intraparty split that Republicans wanted to avoid in an election year.
Vulnerable Republicans such as Carlos Curbelo in Florida and David Valadao in California are being forced to run without having secured a solution for Dreamers. Both have pushed House GOP leaders to tackle their plight head-on.
“I’ve always felt that if you do what’s right and right for the district then they’ll support you,” Valadao said about voters in his central California district. Latinos make up 76 percent of the 21st District, which is based in the state’s breadbasket, and 62 percent of the electorate, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data.
Democrats have another plan in mind. Their aim is to pin Trump’s brand of jingoism to as many vulnerable Republicans as possible, regardless of each candidate’s personal views on Dreamers.
Some strategists want to force Republicans to answer for Trump’s overall agenda, arguing that they shouldn’t be allowed to choose which classes of immigrants they support.
“It’s on us to hold these folks accountable on Dreamers but it’s also about telling the bigger story,” said Beatriz Lopez, a longtime operative now with the Immigration Hub. “You didn’t get the Dream Act passed, but you also didn’t say anything about the family separations, you haven’t said anything against the rhetoric. It’s all about tying it in, weaving it in to the Dreamer story, because it’s much bigger than that.”
In Pennsylvania, which has the 10th-largest Latino electorate in the country, Democrats head into November on the heels of an advantageous redistricting decision, and several Republicans are feeling the heat. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, whose district outside Philadelphia swings blue on the new map, acknowledged he’s in a tough spot but said he plans to stick to policy in hopes that voters favor his issue-by-issue approach.
“I think the Dreamers need to be protected. I think our borders need to be made secure. And I think sanctuary cities should be defunded,” Fitzpatrick said. “The most important thing we can do is focus on what the right policy is, don’t worry about the politics, don’t worry about elections and I think that’s the right balance.”
Fitzpatrick and Valadao are among 23 moderate Republicans who recently signed a discharge petition aimed at forcing Speaker Paul D. Ryan to hold votes on four separate proposals that would solve the Dreamer issue. They put the petition on hold after striking a deal with Ryan for votes on two immigration bills, neither of which gained Democratic support. The House rejected one of the bills June 21; GOP leaders delayed a vote on the other.
“It’s clear that Republicans are scared of looking like jerks on immigration,” said Erickson Hatalsky. “Clearly a lot of these folks think that they need to get themselves right, or at least have some counter for Democrats who are going to say they’re supporting Trump’s immigration policies.”
Indeed, vulnerable Republicans are also running away from Trump’s move to separate children from their parents. Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen, who represents a suburban district that Clinton carried by nearly 10 points in 2016, said the policy “is just not what America is about.” And Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder, who leads the Appropriations panel that funds Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol, called on the administration to immediately halt the practice.
Democrats are expected to play up both the family separation policy and the plight of Dreamers in contests with mobilized Latino voters. Two of their best opportunities to pick up Senate seats are in states where Latino voters make up around 20 percent of the electorate: Arizona, where Rep. Kyrsten Sinema will likely face off against GOP Rep. Martha McSally, and Nevada, where Rep. Jacky Rosen will try to unseat Republican Sen. Dean Heller. McSally’s position is seen as particularly precarious because she faces two immigration hard-liners in the Aug. 28 primary.
One is Joe Arpaio, the notorious former sheriff of Maricopa County who was convicted of criminal contempt last July after defying a court order saying he could not racially profile Latinos. Trump pardoned Arpaio earlier this year, ostensibly raising his profile with the president’s nationalist base. The other is state Sen. Kelli Ward, who has also won Trump’s praise.
“The problem is, to win the primary you have to tack so far to the right on immigration issues [that] you lose some independents and others who realize there are some nuances,” said Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring. “It’s difficult for Republicans.”
An eye on 2020
While most Democrats are digging in for 2018, some like Moran of the Immigration Hub are playing the long game. In her view, Republicans aren’t likely to change their tune even if they lose the House majority, meaning Democrats will be faced with the same attacks in 2020 when Trump himself is on the ballot.
Part of Moran’s mission for the midterms is to identify what went wrong for Democrats in 2016, including whether immigration played a role in districts or states where voters who previously supported Obama voted for Trump, and how to frame the issue so Democrats can regain that support to take back the White House.
The aim, she said, is to “find common values where you’re able to neutralize what the other side is doing on immigration.”
On sanctuary cities, in particular, Moran believes Democrats have an opportunity to gain the support of swing voters if they could only craft the message correctly. In the meantime, Republicans are welcome to double-down on Trump’s agenda.
“If we talk to the electorate in the right way, through a values-based frame, we can neutralize some of the harsh rhetoric around immigration,” she said, adding: “We’re trying to tell a national story that this strategy is not a winning strategy.”