Republicans have been hunting for ways to reach out to Hispanic voters, but that effort may be complicated as a surge of children crossing the southwestern border has prompted the party to take a tough line on border security and illegal immigration.
Critics from both parties say the push is politically dangerous for the GOP’s long-term prospects with this growing bloc of voters, particularly given the House Republicans’ decision this year to not take up a broader immigration overhaul, strongly supported by Hispanics. But many Republicans say the child-migration crisis leaves them no choice but to respond forcefully.
The border crisis also has created problems for Democrats. President Barack Obama has urged Congress to speed up deportation proceedings for Central American children who cross the border illegally, a position at odds with many congressional Democrats’ views.
At issue is how to respond to the tens of thousands of families and children traveling alone from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border as they flee violence or poverty in their home countries, or seek to reunite with family in the U.S. Republicans have almost uniformly demanded more enforcement, including some who had taken more welcoming positions in the past.
Last week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry vowed to send 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the Mexican border, saying his citizens were “under assault.” In 2011, he supported giving young illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates, and told those who disagreed, “I don’t think you have a heart.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) called last week for an end to Mr. Obama’s program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which shelters many young people from deportation. That followed his efforts last year to help author a Senate bill offering a path to citizenship to millions of children and adults in the U.S. illegally. Before that, he backed giving legal status to people brought to the U.S. illegally as minors.
A few months ago, House Republican leaders said they were writing a bill to give legal status to these young undocumented immigrants. But now, under pressure from conservatives, GOP leaders are considering a floor vote ending the DACA program. They say the House only will approve a portion of the emergency funding requested by Mr. Obama to respond to the border crisis if a law is changed to speed up deportations of Central American children. They also want to deploy the National Guard.
Even Republicans who support some broader immigration changes said tightening border security was a necessary precursor to any other steps to rewrite immigration laws. “I don’t think border security alone solves the overall immigration problem, but when you have 50,000 people who come across the border illegally and we’ve not been able to stop them, there’s an immediate crisis,” said Rep. Aaron Schock (R., Ill.).
Others point to a potential decline in the GOP’s standing with Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly supported Mr. Obama in 2012.
“I think that whatever progress the party may have made in the last 18 months has basically been unwound in the last two weeks,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “How can Hispanics [in the U.S.] not hear the message that ‘They don’t really like us’?”
Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for George W. Bush who after the 2012 election helped write a report on the party’s future for the Republican National Committee, said the GOP won’t suffer any consequences in this year’s midterm elections. Few competitive races in November are in places with large Hispanic populations. But Mr. Fleischer said the party will have to quickly pivot as the 2016 presidential race approaches.
“The problem for Republicans is going to be if the presidential contenders are unable to turn the corner the day after the election and speak in a more inclusive tone, and have welcoming policies which include immigration reform,” he said.
Meanwhile, Democrats and some immigration advocates argue that Republicans are making the party’s problems worse.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.) said the issue would benefit Democrats because it would highlight the contrast between the parties.
“The more they harp, the more they do their theatrics, the more they single out this community, the racial undercurrent and tones of this become more and more prominent,” he said. “The Latino community gets it: This is not just about this little migrant kid from Guatemala, this is about us—and [for Republicans] that’s the risk.”