Immigration Upheaval Injects Uncertainty Into the 2018 Elections

(Bloomberg) -- A growing movement among Democrats calling for abolishing or scaling back a key U.S. immigration enforcement agency risks turning a potentially advantageous issue for the party into a rallying point for Republicans in the November midterm elections.

The GOP also is facing peril on immigration. Republican lawmakers are still struggling to respond to images of wailing children who were taken from their undocumented parents at the U.S.-Mexico border under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance policy.

Long a divisive issue in the U.S., the roiling debate on immigration has vaulted it to the top of voters’ concerns before the November vote, and neither party appears to have a clear advantage.

“It’s basically a known unknown, at this point,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who worked for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and former House Speaker John Boehner. “Border security is deeply popular -- among independents as well as Republicans. The images of family separation at the border are brutal, but calls to ‘abolish ICE’ are a ham-fisted overreaction that swing voters will definitely not support.”

No Clear Plan

Congress is returning to work Monday without a clear plan or timeline to address immigration in general or the family separations in particular. That paralysis -- exacerbated by partisan differences, internal GOP divisions and conflicting signals from Trump -- may leave immigration as a festering issue as voters are making choices that will determine which party controls the House and Senate.

Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of immigration by a margin of 58 percent to 39 percent, though 80 percent of Republicans back the president, a Quinnipiac poll released last week found. The question of Trump’s handling of family separations breaks down roughly along the same lines. Separately, a Pew Research Center survey found that Americans prefer Democrats over Republicans on immigration by a 14-point margin.

But in midterm elections, which tend to be low-turnout affairs, voter motivation is important. A Reuters poll released Friday showed that while that immigration was the issue most frequently cited by registered voters as determining how they’ll vote in the fall, Republicans were more driven by it. Twenty-six percent of GOP voters cited it as their No. 1 concern, higher than any other issue; Democrats ranked it third, with 7 percent saying it’s their main motivator.

Political Liability

The splitting up of undocumented families, though, had become such a liability for Republicans that Trump was forced into a rare policy reversal. The administration is still working through a plan for detaining families together, and says it is trying to reunite an estimated 3,000 children who have already been taken from their parents.

Democratic consultant Joe Trippi predicted that women — including those who traditionally favor Republicans — will punish Trump’s party for his policies.

“On the Democratic side they’re pretty energized, as we’ve seen, and there are quite a number of Republican women who feel great unease at Trump’s language and the way the policies are being carried out,” he said. “Breaking up families — even if they agree on a secure border, and they may or may not agree on a wall, they definitely don’t agree on breaking up families.”

Abolish ICE

It’s unclear how American voters will respond calls to abolish or completely revamp Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency at the center of the controversy. Prominent liberals including Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have taken up the cause.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi believes ICE needs a "drastic overhaul," spokesman Drew Hammill said, adding that it "has been on the wrong end of far too many inhumane and unconstitutional practices." But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the agency, while needing “reform,” “does some functions that are very much needed.”

Trump has seized on the cries to abolish ICE to try to paint Democrats as wanting to abandon enforcement of immigration laws.

“Many Democrats are deeply concerned about the fact that their ’leadership’ wants to denounce and abandon the great men and women of ICE, thereby declaring war on Law & Order,” Trump tweeted last week. “These people will be voting for Republicans in November and, in many cases, joining the Republican Party!”

Potential Backfire

Mark Krikorian, who runs the anti-immigration group Center For Immigration Studies, said the calls to eliminate ICE “gives a sense to a lot of voters that Democrats have gone off the deep end.”

Trippi said that while the abolish ICE rhetoric “may increase intensity on the Democratic side of things,” it could backfire in conservative parts of the country the party needs to win to take control of the House and Senate.

“The more you use arguments that make everybody go to their corners, the tougher it is to win a red district or a red state,” he said. “So arguments like, ‘We need to stop the breakup of families,’ which we know a huge number of voters across the aisle agree with -- and are alarmed by what the Trump administration has done -- that to me seems to be a better argument.”

Working against the GOP is the failure of the Republican-controlled Congress to fund Trump’s border wall or enact the tighter restrictions on legal immigration, which risks depressing the turnout of the party base in November.

“We need to deliver or voters are going to revolt,” said Harlan Hill, a strategist on the advisory board of Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.

The American public has complicated views on immigration. For the most part, voters believe immigrants are good for the U.S. and are open to changing the law to give undocumented people a path to staying in the country. Yet they also register high levels of support for enforcement of immigration and border laws, including deportations in some circumstances. The partisan divide has grown in recent years, with Republicans hewing toward anti-immigration positions and Democrats trending toward pro-immigration views.

Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on abolishing ICE, which was established in 2003, en route to her stunning upset primary victory in a New York City district against a top House Democrat.

“It seems that the GOP is so emotionally committed to keeping children in detention centers that they equate the stance of abolishing ICE with ‘open borders.’ Don’t let their hysteria get to you,” she wrote on Twitter. “A humane, responsible immigration system is possible.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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