How Failure of a ‘Dreamer’ Deal May Tip Control of Congress

(Bloomberg) -- The failure of President Donald Trump and Democratic lawmakers to strike a deal on young undocumented immigrants puts the divisive issue into the middle of some hotly contested campaigns for November’s midterm elections -- ones which could tip control of Congress.

A relatively small number of people are affected personally by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump wants to end -- about 1.8 million immigrants, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, according to administration estimates. And they can’t vote.

But the group has emerged as a symbolic stand-in for the debate over illegal immigration that’s been at a stalemate in Washington for more than a decade.

A sizable majority of Americans, especially Democrats and independents, support giving legal status to Dreamers, opinion polls have shown. The topic resonates especially in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Nevada -- states with large Hispanic populations where Democrats are seeking to chip away at the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

“We’re discussing it in our race every single day,” said Jacky Rosen, a U.S. representative who’s the likely Democratic nominee to face Republican incumbent Senator Dean Heller in Nevada. “Dean Heller is doing whatever the president wants -- he’s opposing the Dream Act and he voted against two bipartisan DACA deals.”

Trump waded back into the partisan debate on Monday, taking to Twitter to again blame Democrats for the collapse of the immigration compromise and declare "Democrats want No Borders, hence drugs and crime!" He also said Democrats must now embrace his calls for a wall and "proper border legislation" as part of any deal on shielding the young migrants from deportation.

Trump also continued a line of tweets he started on Sunday, calling on Mexico to stop a "caravan" of immigrants from Central America from marching northward and prodding lawmakers from his Republican Party to use the "nuclear option" and remove a procedural tactic that has allowed Democrats to block legislation to fund a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Vulnerable Incumbent

Heller is considered the most vulnerable Republican running for re-election to the Senate. He narrowly won his election in 2012, and Democrat Hillary Clinton carried Nevada in the 2016 presidential contest. There are roughly 12,400 young immigrants registered for DACA in the state, according to government estimates.

The Nevada Senate race is enough of a concern for Republicans that Trump stepped in to head off a challenge to Heller in the party’s primary, scheduled for June.

Keith Schipper, a spokesman for Heller, said Rosen was trying to “demagogue” the issue of DACA. He said Heller voted for a Trump-backed proposal that would have given those eligible under DACA a path to citizenship, while also cutting legal immigration. That was one of three immigration proposals that failed to advance in the Senate in February.

Public Support

“Dean Heller has led on finding a solution; Jacky Rosen is all talk,” Schipper said in an email.

Despite broad-based support for Dreamers, attempts to formalize their status in the U.S. have repeatedly broken down. Democrats rejected Trump’s demands to impose steep cuts in the future flow of family-sponsored immigration -- a process he’s derided as “chain migration” -- and to fund a border wall as part of any compromise on DACA.

The debate cuts both ways.

In Texas, Republican Senator Ted Cruz is being challenged by Democrat Representative Beto O’Rourke. Cruz has sought to energize conservative voters by carving out hard-line opposition to any path to citizenship for Dreamers, on the grounds that it would reward lawbreakers. Texas has about 113,000 DACA recipients, putting it second behind California.

‘Principled Stand’

Cruz has “taken a strong principled stand and it’s definitely helping him in Texas,” said Roy Beck, president of the NumbersUSA, a group that wants to reduce immigration to the U.S.

Beck argued that Trump’s offer of protections for DACA recipients in exchange for border wall funding would have hurt Republicans with their voting base. “Republicans are still competitive for the 2018 election because the Democrats blocked Trump’s proposal,” he said.

Although Cruz is favored to win re-election, Beck said Republicans generally still face a challenge. While DACA recipients won’t be getting a path to citizenship, conservatives may stay home on election day because they didn’t get the tighter immigration restrictions they wanted. “People are getting to be very depressed,” he said.

In races for the U.S. House, DACA may be a factor in more than a half-dozen contested seats in California, including those held by Republicans Dana Rohrabacher, Steve Knight and Jeff Denham; an open Arizona seat in the Tucson area; a southwest Texas district; and a couple of seats in south Florida, including a challenge to Republican Carlos Curbelo.

Mostly Symbolic?

They’re among the prime targets for Democrats who need a net gain of 23 seats to take over a majority in the House -- a total whittled down in March by the surprise pickup of a seat in Pennsylvania held by Republicans for many years.

“It will be most salient in areas with large numbers of DACA kids, like in California and Texas,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster based in Virginia. “Beyond that, it’s primary relevance is symbolic. There are vast swaths of the country where there are almost no DACA kids, but they would still like to see our political system function at a minimal level, which it doesn’t seem to be able to do.”

Trump and his aides have sought to put the blame on Democrats.

“Congress must immediately pass Border Legislation, use Nuclear Option if necessary, to stop the massive inflow of Drugs and People,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “Border Patrol Agents (and ICE) are GREAT, but the weak Dem laws don’t allow them to do their job. Act now Congress, our country is being stolen!”

“They want to use DACA recipients as political pawns,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters last week. “We’d love to come up with a long-term solution if Democrats decide to show up for work and be part of that process.”

‘Caravans’ Ahoy

But Trump on Sunday seemed to shut the door on that idea. In a tweet, the president complained that the Border Patrol has had its hands tied and warned ominously of the peril the country faces from illegal immigration.

“Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!” Trump said on Twitter.

Failure to resolve what seems to be a consensus issue makes neither party look good, Ayres said. “But when Republicans control all the levers of power, Republicans are likely to get a greater share of the blame.”

Democrats are eager to use that dynamic in heavily Hispanic areas and in suburban districts where Trump has been bleeding support, as well as among younger Americans who typically don’t show up to vote in large numbers but appear unusually energized this year.

No Abstraction

“To young voters, DACA isn’t an abstraction -- it’s their friend, their neighbor, the classmate they’ve grown up with, who the Republican Party was willing to deport,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic consultant and former deputy director of the party’s House campaign arm. Emphasizing that is “not a compelling message” for Republicans to gain their votes, he said.

Still, Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant based in Texas, said the lack of a resolution on immigration isn’t likely to have a widespread impact in most Congressional contests.

“This uncertainty could play a role in districts that have large Hispanic populations or have specific proximity to Mexico," he said “But I suspect it is an issue that motivates the base of both parties and ultimately means very little in swing districts.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.