These GOP House candidates walk a fine line on immigration, an issue that’s personal

Some echo Trump’s hard line, others call DACA a priority

Young Kim, seen here campaigning in Brea, Calif., in 2018, is making a second bid for the 39th District.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Young Kim, seen here campaigning in Brea, Calif., in 2018, is making a second bid for the 39th District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 28, 2020 at 5:00am

Corrected 7:55 p.m. | Victoria Spartz credits her conservative values to what she saw as a child. Born and raised in Ukraine, she recalls an era when the former Soviet government controlled the religion people practiced and monitored what they said in public.

“The values of freedom are very valuable for someone who immigrated from a country where we didn’t have a lot of freedoms,” said the 42-year-old Republican running for Indiana’s 5th District.

Immigration has long been one of President Donald Trump’s signature issues. His 2016 campaign pledges to build a “big beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexican border, crack down on illegal immigration and curb legal immigration, have driven many of his policies since taking office. Trump has vowed to continue rolling out more of these policies in a second term.

Those issues hold more personal meaning for Spartz and a handful of other Republican immigrant women running for Congress this year. While pressing issues such as the economy and pandemic-related recovery rank high on their priorities, these candidates can’t avoid addressing where they stand on immigration policies. Some have embraced Trump’s hard-line stances, but others have cautiously held those policies at arm’s length.

‘My own person’

“I am running as my own person and on my own ideas,” said Young Kim, a Republican making her second bid for California’s 39th District.

“As an immigrant and someone who has experienced the immigration system first-hand, I know we can do better,” she said by email.

Kim, the first Korean American Republican woman elected to the California Legislature, emigrated from South Korea in 1975 with her family and was naturalized in 1984. She first ran for the Southern California district in 2018, hoping to replace retiring Republican Ed Royce, for whom she worked for two decades. Kim ended up losing by 3 points to Democrat Gil Cisneros in a race that hinged on the counting of mail-in ballots.

Kim said she supports tighter U.S. border security, but if elected, she would probably make passing legislation to help beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program more of a priority. That program has helped protect more than 700,000 immigrants who came to the country unlawfully as children.

“I believe we must value fairness, compassion, and security in our immigration system,” she said, adding later that it’s important to “make improvements where it is necessary, while treating those that are here and have not committed crimes compassionately.”

Spartz agreed there’s a need to help people seeking to immigrate — legally.

“I don’t blame people that want to come here,” she said. “But if we want to help the rest of the world, we need to make sure that we have security for the country and promote democracy. So we cannot have Wild West open borders.”

Indiana Republican Victoria Spartz would like to make the application process for immigration less arduous. (Courtesy Victoria Spartz Republican for Congress)

Spartz came to the U.S. on a spouse visa and waited six years to become a citizen because she said the government lost her paperwork. If elected, she said one of the first things she wants to work on is legislation to help make the application process for immigration less arduous.

America first

Not everyone is as sympathetic.

Johsie Cruz, a Venezuela-born Republican running in Georgia’s deep-blue 4th District, often echoes Trump administration lines about immigration.

“When it comes to bad people, I’m going to be straightforward: Deport all of them,” she said, referring mainly to immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally. “We don’t need no bad people here. We don’t need MS-13 here. We don’t need drug traffickers here. We need to send them back to their country. Because in America, we have to take care of Americans.”

Cruz is challenging Democrat Hank Johnson, who took 79 percent in 2018 and is heavily favored to win an eighth term this year representing his Atlanta-area seat. Born and raised in Venezuela, Cruz, 51, came to the U.S. on a visitor visa to attend a work conference more than two decades ago. She was offered a job while in the country and became a citizen 12 years later.

“When somebody talks to me today, I don’t see myself as an immigrant. I don’t see myself as Venezuelan,” she said. “I see myself as an American.”

In fact, Cruz said she opposes current legislation that would grant Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans. The bill, which has stalled in the Senate, would give Venezuelans short-term protections to live and work in the country, but Cruz said “there is no constitutional basis” for the measure. The Constitution does grant both Congress and the president, however, legal authority to designate humanitarian status to certain countries.

Amid fresh criticism over the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated migrant families at the border, along with other immigration policies, Republican immigrant candidates are walking a careful line over how much of their personal backgrounds they should intertwine with their campaigns.

Spartz won her primary election because she is viewed as “very conservative,” said Andy Downs, a political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

“She certainly discussed her immigrant background and very much her bringing-herself-up-by-her-bootstraps, successful life story,” he said. “She’s still doing a lot of that.”

But running in a district north of Indianapolis that increasingly leans Democratic will make it harder for her to win in November, Downs said, especially against a Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Christina Hale, who stresses her reputation for working across the political aisle.

“This may be one of those instances when she was too far to the right for the district as a whole,” Downs said of Spartz.

Republican Nisha Sharma, who is running in California's 11th District, backs a merit-based immigration system. (Courtesy Nisha Sharma for Congress)

Sayu Bhojwani, president and founder of New American Leaders, an organization that trains first- and second-generation Americans to run for office at all government levels, says GOP immigrants, particularly women, probably have it tougher than their Democratic counterparts when it comes to talking about immigration policy.

“They may be talking about their individual story, but it is in the context of a conservative, socially conservative and fiscally conservative framework,” Bhojwani said. “That probably also denies some of their own heritage and background.”

‘Fairer immigration laws’

Nisha Sharma has no problem embracing her background in her run for California’s 11th District.

The 38-year-old Republican, who placed a distant second to Democratic incumbent Mark DeSaulnier in March’s top-two primary for the Bay Area seat and faces him again on next week’s ballot, was born in India and immigrated to the U.S. in 2004 to escape what she calls “an oppressive socialist economy.”

Sharma shares Trump’s distaste for an immigration system that gives preferences to family members — even though she came to the U.S. on a spouse visa. Instead, she backs what the administration has called a “merit-based” system that favors highly skilled, financially self-sufficient immigrants.

“We should have fairer immigration laws here that give equal rights to everybody on the basis of their skills,” she said.

For her, being a Republican means helping to shape a country that embraces both Americans and foreigners.

“It was very important for me to run up on the Republican ticket because I could see myself and I could relate with them,” she said. “Also, I want to keep the beauty this country holds, that attracts immigrants to come.”

Correction: This report was revised to correct Victoria Spartz’s age.

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