NEW YORK (AP) — On immigration, there were few easy answers for the Republican Party’s most vulnerable members. And President Donald Trump just made things harder.
Endangered Republicans from California to Colorado and Nevada to New Jersey have struggled in recent days to defend their president’s decision to end the program that offered deportation protections for young people living here illegally who came to this country as children. The Trump administration gave Congress six months to agree on an alternative, yet it’s far from certain that a divided Congress can do so.
And on the ground in key states and swing districts across America, a concerned Hispanic community is getting even angrier at Trump’s Republican Party as next year’s midterm elections loom.
“Those candidates who need Latino voters are on their own, and they’re struggling,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “If he continues with this behavior and this rhetoric, things could get worse.”
In isolated instances, Republicans facing difficult re-elections joined Democrats in condemning the president’s move to end protections for young immigrants. The vast majority, however, praised Trump for ending what they viewed as an unconstitutional Obama-era program, even as they vowed to find a compassionate solution.
The varied responses highlight the GOP’s struggle to balance competing interests. On one side: Trump’s small but energized white nationalist base. On the other: a growing Hispanic community, which is poised to play an increasingly powerful role in national politics over the coming years.
“Although people in the Hispanic community in my district are not happy with the president, the fact is that he did give us some breathing room on this issue,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who has sponsored legislation that would give Congress an additional three years to protect the so-called “Dreamers,” young adults brought to the United States as young children in many cases.
Coffman is one of two dozen Republicans serving in congressional districts carried by Hillary Clinton last fall. Most are considered top targets as Democrats seek to claim the House majority in the 2018 elections. And many serve in areas with growing Hispanic communities.
Coffman, a five-term congressman, estimated that Hispanics make up about 20 percent of his constituents.
“If I was just brand new coming out of the block, I think it’d be pretty difficult,” he said of the environment created by Trump. “The tone coming out of the White House would make it more challenging.”
Trump’s latest move does not come in a vacuum.
The president last month pardoned Arizona’s former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of ignoring a judge’s order to stop profiling Latinos suspected of being in the country illegally. Trump also continues fighting for a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and regularly highlights the dangers of illegal immigration.
The Republican’s rhetoric is not going over well in Arizona and Nevada, two states with significant Hispanic populations and competitive Senate contests next fall.
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, considered one of the nation’s most vulnerable Republicans, broke from Trump this week on the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
“While I remain concerned about the way in which DACA came to life, I’ve made clear that I support the program because hard-working individuals who came to this country through no fault of their own as children should not be immediately shown the door,” Heller said
In Arizona, where more than 20 percent of all eligible voters are Hispanic, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said Trump was right to end an unconstitutional program. But, like Coffman, he supports legislation that would provide immediate protection for roughly 800,000 young immigrants in the country illegally who enrolled in the program.
“They are valued members of society and I hope they can stay,” Flake said.
The Arizona senator also highlighted recommendations made by the Republican National Committee in 2013, which called on the GOP to adopt a more welcoming and inclusive tone to improve its standing with Hispanic voters. The future success of the party depended upon it, the RNC determined two years before Trump launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists.
Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a prominent Trump ally last fall, also toed the line this week as he condemned Obama’s program, but praised the intent of the policy.
“This issue must be addressed. I do not favor punishing children for the actions of their parents,” said Scott, who is weighing a bid to challenge incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018. Hispanics make up more than 18 percent of eligible voters in Florida, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Yet in many other states with smaller Hispanic communities, Republicans have far less political incentive to protect the young immigrants from deportation.
Matthew Dowd, a strategist for former President George W. Bush’s campaign, has warned Republican leaders for nearly two decades that they must appeal to Hispanics. He noted that Trump’s base of white, less-educated voters embraced the president’s tone.
“Let us remember Trump is a symptom of where GOP voters are on immigration and race relations, not a cause of it,” Dowd tweeted. In an interview, he said the Republican Party may have succeeded in 2016, but it cannot survive alienating Hispanic voters and other minorities for much longer.
“It’s just a question of time,” Dowd said. “If you look at the demographics of Trump support, that group is dwindling every single year.”
And beyond those Republicans facing difficult re-elections in 2018, the message to Hispanics this week was often far from welcoming.
“They came here to live in the shadows and we’re not denying them that opportunity to live in the shadows,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said, when asked about the immigrant children.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa and Richard Lardner and Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report.