New York Times
By Emmarie Huetteman
September 8, 2016
Representative Robert J. Dold, Republican of Illinois, is eager to work with Democrats to change the nation’s immigration laws, despite Donald J. Trump’s signature proposal to build a border wall and deport immigrants who are in the country illegally.
But he may not be around in January to act on his conviction.
Mr. Dold, who represents Chicago’s northern suburbs, is one of at least a dozen House Republicans who have been weighing a push for broad immigration legislation as soon as next year.
Several of the most ardent Republican supporters of an immigration overhaul are locked in fierce election fights, potentially leaving an even more conservative party in the House that will be less willing to negotiate on fixing the immigration system.
For many members of Congress, being open to an immigration overhaul is increasingly a matter of political survival: About 27.3 million Latinos are qualified to vote in this year’s election, according to the Pew Research Center, constituting a record 11.9 percent of eligible voters. Latino organizations have been focused on encouraging turnout in a year some speculate could make Hispanic voters an electoral heavyweight for years to come.
In 164 of 435 districts, the share of eligible Latino voters increased by at least one percentage point during the past four years, said David Wasserman, an editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report who focuses on House races. Most of the districts that have had the most growth are held by Democrats, though 70 of those 164 are in Republican hands, he said.
Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado, for instance, has seen the emerging power of the Hispanic vote. A Republican who voted in his first term against a bill to create a path to legalization for young people who came to the United States as children, he watched — and reacted — as redistricting abruptly dealt him a constituency in which one in five residents is Latino, compared with less than one in 10 when he was first elected. Now Mr. Coffman is among those House Republicans most engaged in conversations about the need for an immigration overhaul.
Yet for lawmakers like Mr. Dold and Mr. Coffman, it is increasingly difficult to put distance between themselves and Mr. Trump.
Mr. Dold has certainly been trying. Democratic leaders want to make an immigration overhaul a priority of the next Congress, and Mr. Dold did not conceal his enthusiasm when this fact was mentioned in an interview. “Great,” he said in the sunny, modernly sparse offices of TechNexus, a firm that connects entrepreneurs and corporations, perched above the Civic Opera House in Chicago.
Mr. Dold serves in perhaps the most heavily Democratic district represented by a Republican. Stretching along Lake Michigan, this relatively well-educated district sits among the affluent Chicago suburbs. Many of its Hispanic residents live in Waukegan, a blue-collar city toward the northern end of the district.
President Obama won commanding victories here in 2008 and 2012; Mr. Trump’s popularity hangs dismally somewhere between lake-effect snow and ketchup on hot dogs.
About 59,000 Latinos are eligible to vote in Mr. Dold’s district, making up 11.2 percent of the electorate — a key group given that Mr. Dold beat Brad Schneider, a former Democratic congressman who is challenging him again this year, by less than 5,000 votes in 2014. That year, 7.37 percent of those who voted were Hispanic — casting more than 13,500 votes — according to numbers provided by Mr. Dold’s staff.
Participating in an all-Republican panel discussion on a “common-sense” immigration overhaul last month at TechNexus, Mr. Dold rebuked Mr. Trump, whom he has said he will not support. He sat alongside Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Senator Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, who is also at risk in November.
“There’s no way in the world that we are going to send 11 million people out of the United States,” Mr. Dold said. “Many of them — most of them, I would argue — are more American than their next-door neighbors, because many of them are our next-door neighbors.”
But while Mr. Dold has introduced legislation that would help entrepreneurs and students with advanced degrees obtain visas, Mr. Schneider has pushed for larger changes, having been one of many sponsors on the House version of the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration legislation in 2013 when he held the seat.
“To me, immigration reform could be, should be, one of the first things we pass because of the immediate impact it would have on our communities,” Mr. Schneider said.
Some who want an immigration overhaul are hopeful about their prospects in the next Congress, even ascribing some credit to an unlikely source: Mr. Trump. The Republican nominee — who last week reiterated his assertion that many immigrants are criminals in an address on immigration policy — has shown lawmakers that many voters will recoil when a candidate adopts an extreme stance on illegal immigration, said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.
“I think that Trump is the best thing that has happened to the immigration issue in a long time,” Mr. Noorani said.
Representative Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican who offered his own legislation to outline a path to citizenship for children brought to the country illegally, said he had been talking to about a dozen like-minded Republicans about pushing for broader immigration legislation early next year. He started a leadership political action committee last year aimed at helping Republicans open to changes in immigration law.
“I know a lot of people, myself included — we regret the way immigration has been discussed so far in this presidential election,” Mr. Curbelo said. “The silver lining is, the fact that it has received so much attention is going to help build momentum for solutions early in the next Congress.”
But the reality is that Mr. Curbelo, like Mr. Dold, might not be part of the new Congress. He is running in one of the country’s most competitive House races, against Joe Garcia, a former Democratic congressman who introduced the House companion to the “Gang of Eight” legislation.
Mr. Trump’s approach to illegal immigration is also complicating the prospects for three House Republicans in California in particular: Representatives Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Steve Knight, all of whom are locked in tight races in districts where at least 25 percent of eligible voters are Latino. While Mr. Knight takes a tougher stance that starts with border security, Mr. Denham and Mr. Valadao advocate a broader overhaul.
Stances like Mr. Trump’s may cause heartburn for many Republicans, still haunted by the party’s internal “autopsy report” after Mitt Romney lost the presidential election in 2012. “If Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” the report concluded. This election could worsen things for the Republican Party, Mr. Wasserman said.
“There will be almost no pro-immigration voices in this conference if all of these members lose, and so that’s a big problem for the party’s prospects nationally,” he said.
For now, overhaul-minded Republicans are left to find ways to distinguish themselves from the top of the ticket as Election Day approaches. And that is no easy task, said Jill Normington, a Washington-based Democratic strategist advising Mr. Schneider.
“As much as they might want to distance themselves from their own party, it says ‘Bob Dold, Republican’ on the ballot,” she said. “And that is a liability in 2016, not an asset.”
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