Pushed by Voters, GOP Moderates Rebel on Immigration

Cipriano Garza says Rep. Carlos Curbelo is “a decent man, a family man.” He lauds the South Florida Republican for defiantly pushing his party to protect young “Dreamer” immigrants from deportation.

Founder of a nonprofit that helps farm workers, Garza happily hosted Curbelo at a reception honoring high school graduates last week at the massive Homestead-Miami Speedway. But his praise came with a warning about this November’s elections.

“He better do what’s right for the community,” said Garza, 70, himself a former migrant laborer. “If not, he can lose.”

Pressure from home

Across the country — from California’s lush Central Valley to suburban Denver to Curbelo’s district of strip malls, farms and the laid-back Florida Keys — moderate Republicans like Curbelo are under hefty pressure to buck their party’s hard-line stance on immigration. After years of watching their conservative colleagues in safe districts refuse to budge, the GOP middle is fighting back, mindful that a softer position may be necessary to save their jobs and GOP control of the House.

“Members who have priorities and feel passionate about issues can’t sit back and expect leaders” to address them, Curbelo said. “Because it doesn’t work.”

Curbelo, 38, is seeking a third term from a district that stretches from upscale Miami suburbs to the Everglades and down to eccentric Key West. Seventy percent of his constituents are Hispanic and nearly half are foreign-born. Those are among the highest percentages in the nation, giving many of them a first-hand stake in Congress’ immigration fight.

​Petition drive in the House

Curbelo and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., whose Modesto-area district thrives on agriculture powered by migrant workers, have launched a petition drive that would force House votes on four immigration bills, ranging from liberal to conservative versions. Twenty-three Republicans have signed on, two shy of the number needed to succeed, assuming all Democrats jump aboard.

Another supporter of the rare rebellion by the usually compliant moderates is Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., a former Marine who learned Spanish when his district was redrawn to include Denver’s diverse eastern suburbs. In an interview, Coffman expressed frustration over waiting nearly 18 months for House Speaker Paul Ryan to deliver on assurances that Congress would address the issue.

“He was always telling me, ‘It will happen, it will happen.’ I never saw it happen,” Coffman said. “One cannot argue that those of us who signed onto this discharge petition didn’t give leadership time.”

​Path to citizenship

The centrists favor legislation that would protect from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. They back a path to citizenship for these immigrants, who have lived in limbo since President Donald Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, called DACA. Federal courts have blocked its termination for now.

Trying to head off the petition, Ryan, R-Wis., and conservatives are negotiating with the centrists in hopes of finding compromise. Roll calls are on track for later this month, but it will be tough to steer legislation through the House that’s both liberal enough to survive in the more moderate Senate and restrictive enough for Trump to sign into law.

At the speedway, a local economic anchor since Hurricane Andrew shattered the city in 1992, Curbelo didn’t mention his battle in Washington to the graduates. 

“Our country and our community need you,” he told his audience, some of whom Garza said were DACA recipients.

Districts won by Clinton

Curbelo’s district backed Democrat Hillary Clinton by a whopping 16 percentage points in the 2016 presidential race over Trump, who has fanned immigrants’ resentment by repeatedly linking them to crime and job losses. That’s left Curbelo facing a competitive re-election, though he’s raised far more campaign cash than his likely Democratic challenger, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.

Of the 23 Republican petition signees, nine represent districts whose Hispanic populations exceed the 18 percent national average. Clinton carried 12 of their districts in 2016, and several are from moderate-leaning suburbs of cities like Philadelphia and Minneapolis and agricultural areas in California and upstate New York that rely on migrant workers.

The centrists’ petition echoes the hardball tactics often employed by the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. Its roughly 30 members often band together with demands top Republicans ignore at peril of losing votes in the narrowly divided House.

GOP leaders and Freedom Caucus members fear that under the votes the petition would force, liberal-leaning legislation backed by most Democrats and a few Republicans would prevail. That would infuriate conservative voters who’ll be needed at the polls to fend off a Democratic wave threatening GOP House control.

Some in GOP not persuaded

Among those envisioning that scenario is Nicholas Mulick, GOP chairman of Florida’s Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys and is the reddest portion of Curbelo’s district. 

“With the greatest respect for the congressman, I don’t think it’s going to work,” Mulick said.

Others reject that argument, saying moderates’ worries should be heeded because they must be re-elected for Republicans to retain their majority.

“That sounds like somebody who’s never run in a swing district,” former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who once led his party’s House campaign arm, said of claims that immigration votes would dampen conservative turnout. “Do they want to be in the majority, hold gavels?”

Democrats and local immigration activists say they wish Curbelo’s effort well but question his motivation. They say he’s reacting to election pressures and simply wants to show voters he’s fighting for them.

“It feels very late, opportunistic, theatrical,” said Thomas Kennedy, deputy political director for the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

Not all constituents on board

Many at the speedway event, sponsored by Garza’s Mexican-American Council, were sympathetic to Curbelo’s battle in Washington, signaling the type of support he’ll need to be re-elected.

Rosa Castillo, 51, of nearby Florida City, said she knows people who don’t get driver’s licenses for fear of having their residency challenged. 

“He’s doing an awesome job for our DACA people,” said Castillo, a Democrat who said she’ll back Curbelo.

“He’s aware of our issues in our community,” said Pedro Sifuentes, 45, an independent from Homestead.

That sentiment isn’t universally shared. Over breakfast at a nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant, retiree and Trump backer Randy Nichols, 73, said he won’t support Curbelo.

“If they’re illegal, they need to leave. I hate to say that, but even for DACA kids,” said Nichols, who lives in Marathon, one of the Keys.

Mucarsel-Powell, Curbelo’s likely Democratic challenger, said in an interview that she was glad he’d “finally found some strength” to take on fellow Republicans.

The former state Senate candidate, an immigrant from Ecuador, said Curbelo’s challenge to GOP leaders “will obviously bring some positive attention.”

She said she hopes Curbelo and his supporters “aren’t doing it for political reasons.”

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