Border Security Beats Sympathy in GOP Ranks
Posted June 20, 2018 9:27 p.m. EDT
CASTROVILLE, Texas — In the three years since Donald Trump began his presidential bid by maligning Mexican immigrants, Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican in a Democratic-leaning district, has faced voters of all stripes who were angry about Trump’s divisive style.
But Hurd, who represents a heavily Hispanic region that stretches across 800 miles of the Mexican border, could not recall a moment when people were as appalled as they were over the images of anguished children separated from their migrant parents.
“All the calls and emails I’ve gotten in my office are from constituents saying: ‘Why are we doing this, this is against our values,'” Hurd said. The president’s policy had damaged the Republican brand, he said, because “nobody understands why you would take children out of their parents’ hands.”
Yet many rank-and-file Republican voters in border states see it differently, creating another kind of pressure for lawmakers like Hurd. Whatever sympathy these voters feel for the children is complicated, they say, by their intense frustration over the flow of migrants from Mexico.
In interviews across the Southwest and Florida on Wednesday, many Republicans said that they appreciated Trump’s emphasis on “zero tolerance” for illegal border crossings, and wished there was as much furor over those immigrants as there was over the separation of parents and children — an administration policy that Trump reversed under pressure from Republicans like Hurd.
“You don’t ever want to be separating families, but at least the president focused attention on all the people crossing the border illegally,” said Helen Delavan, 79, a retired school secretary in Castroville and a supporter of both Trump and Hurd.
Marcella Lagleder, 65, a retired software developer who runs an arts and crafts shop in Castroville, said the political turmoil over migrant families left her wondering “why we’re still being so open to the illegals.”
“I don’t think we’re mistreating them,” Lagleder said. “It’d be different if they were put in a doghouse or something like that.”
From Arizona and New Mexico to Texas and Florida, conservative-leaning voters were divided over how to handle the families and on immigration policy more broadly, a reflection of the Republican fissures that have stymied immigration legislation for over a decade.
Interviews with these voters in some of the most hotly contested, heavily Hispanic states and congressional districts illustrate the bind Republicans find themselves in: They need to retain support from voters who have little sympathy for unauthorized immigrants and also win over more moderate voters horrified by Trump’s remarks about Hispanics.
Republican lawmakers and strategists said the president’s “zero tolerance” policy had created a political crisis for the party at a time when Republicans badly want to be taking credit for the improving economy. Instead of talking about the second-quarter economic growth that could near 5 percent, Republicans worry they are handing Democrats a potent line of attack for the midterms.
Yet while the searing photographs of children locked in cages left many Democrats and independents deeply dismayed, many Republicans were less sympathetic about the plight of migrants who knowingly broke the law.
Julio Martinez, 74, who headed Trump’s Miami-area campaign, defended the president’s hard-line approach.
“It hurts my heart to see it, but the culpable ones are the parents who subject their children to crossing the border, or who send them by themselves,” Martinez said. “If we start breaking laws ourselves, what is this country going to become? All of those multimillionaires who live in Hollywood, why don’t they let all those illegals live in their houses?” But Michelle Garcia, 42, a cafe owner in Los Lunas, New Mexico, where there is an open House seat in a district that is majority-Hispanic and likely to be highly competitive, said the family separations had been “merciless and counterproductive.”
“I’m a conservative and I don’t believe that this is the solution,” she said.
But what is especially worrisome for Republicans in states like Florida, where there are hard-fought races for governor, Senate and a handful of House seats this year, is that the president is not just alienating voters with his policies. Equally troubling is his use of harsh and demagogic language when describing Latinos, rhetoric he seemed to amplify in a series of tweets and speeches as pressure on him grew this week.
Trump’s claim that unauthorized migrants “infest our country,” for example, has left some Hispanic Republicans angry and concerned that he’s driving away up-for-grabs voters.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a veteran Florida Republican who is of Cuban descent. “That kind of divisive language hurts us.”
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., who is locked in a highly competitive re-election fight, said Trump’s warnings about the threat of migrants had “been dehumanizing.”
There are few House Republicans who are as frustrated with the Trump administration over immigration as Curbelo, who represents one of the most Democratic-leaning districts of any Republican in the country and has been working for months on a compromise for Dreamers, the term generally used for those brought to the country illegally as children.
In an interview, he complained that the family separation policy was “a unilateral decision by Jeff Sessions,” adding that the hard-line attorney general has “freelanced on a number of issues.”
What is clear from the interviews with voters, however, is that Trump’s bald warnings about the peril presented by immigrants are being heard — and echoed by some of his supporters.
“The last thing I want is this place to end up like Germany or Europe, where they’re blowing up stuff and knife attacks and things like that,” said Ryan Farnsworth, 44, who works in the construction industry in Phoenix and voted for the president.
Farnsworth was sounding the same note Trump did earlier this week, when he falsely claimed that crime in Germany had spiked and said Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition was at risk because of permissive refugee policies. Standing next to a bank of Spanish-language newspapers outside the Maricopa County Courthouse, Farnsworth said that he saw the president’s family separation policy as an unfortunate but practical deterrent that could have helped secure the borders.
“Do I like seeing families pulled apart? Absolutely not,” he said, just as a Hispanic woman and her young son scooted by, hand in hand. “But it is no different than if I were to go commit a crime, I went to jail, I’d lose my children, too; they’d be stripped from me.”
It is voters like Farnsworth who have created pressure on Republican politicians like Rep. Martha McSally, who is running for Senate in Arizona and trying to accommodate the hard-liners who dominate the GOP’s overwhelmingly white party base there without offending the broader, more racially diverse electorate.
And the challenge is even more acute on the border, where Lea Marquez-Peterson is running for McSally’s seat in a district that includes both staunch border hawks and recent immigrants.
“It’s a very split district,” said Peterson, a Republican who previously ran the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “We should have passed a comprehensive immigration bill years ago.”
In New Mexico — which has the highest percentage of citizens with Hispanic ancestry in the country — voters more frequently expressed discomfort with the separation policy.
“It’s sad,” said Andrew Baca, 28, a Belen, New Mexico, barber and former soldier who is Latino. “We’re all immigrants, bro. America is made of immigrants.”
But the challenge for Democrats here — in a sprawling and heavily rural district held by Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican — is that voters who may not like Trump’s immigration policies are uneasy with the liberal line on guns and abortion rights.
“My vote wouldn’t necessarily change because of the separation only,” Baca said. Back in Hurd’s district — which includes the Tornillo holding facility where some of the children have been detained — his Democratic opponent, Gina Ortiz Jones, suggested the incumbent’s outrage was inspired by his re-election bid.
“It took kids in cages for him to speak up,” said Jones, a former Air Force officer, arguing that the Republican’s voting record suggested more fidelity to Trump than his rhetoric.
But the good news for Hurd, a former CIA officer who survived 2016 even as Hillary Clinton carried the district, is that many voters here say they intend to support him, no matter their view on the separation of children from their parents.
Robert Belitz, a Democrat selling melons from the back of his truck on the main road cutting through Castroville, expressed disgust at the policy.
“This isn’t some authoritarian state,” he said, before adding he would still back Hurd, whom he deemed “a good man who delivers on what he says.”
For Hurd to win again along the Rio Grande, he would need such voters to remain in his corner — and for Trump to not make that task more difficult.
“Whenever we’re not able to talk about how the economy is doing well, how unemployment is low, and instead we’re talking about taking babies from their mothers — that’s not an environment that’s going to be helpful,” Hurd said.