The Memo: GOP fears damage from Trump’s move on DACA

President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program could cause the Republican Party grave damage with Latino voters, according to experts both inside and outside the GOP.

Trump did better with Hispanics in November’s presidential election than most expected, avoiding a catastrophic loss with the voting bloc despite his hard-line rhetoric on immigration and his signature promise to build a southern border wall.

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But the decision to end DACA — a program put in place by then-President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Interior moves to delay Obama’s methane leak rule MORE in 2012 — could prove a watershed moment, some say.

“It is the topic of conversation in every Latino household,” said Luis Alvarado, a Los Angeles-based Republican strategist. “If this energy can be corralled and focused against Republicans in the 2018 elections, Republicans are going to suffer great losses.”

Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanThe Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Gun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker Tim Murphy to retire at end of term MORE (R-Wis.) had last week urged Trump not to end the program. On Tuesday, Arizona’s two Republican senators, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainRubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts The VA's woes cannot be pinned on any singular administration Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy MORE and Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeAuthorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient Republicans jockey for position on immigration McCain, Flake warn against 'politically-motivated penalties' for Canadian defense firm MORE, criticized him for doing so. Meanwhile, centrist GOP lawmakers including Rep. Carlos Curbelo (Fla.) are pushing a legislative fix.

Notably, Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerRepublicans jockey for position on immigration Bipartisan bill would toughen North Korea sanctions, require Trump's strategy GOP senators push for delay of ObamaCare insurer tax MORE (R-Colo.), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, threw his support behind the DREAM Act on Tuesday. Gardner is now a co-sponsor of the proposed legislation, which would go even further than DACA, providing young immigrants with a path to citizenship.

Another California GOP strategist, Hector Barajas, stressed that Democrats would make political hay from the ending of DACA, especially if Congress did not step in during the six months before the program officially goes dormant.

“It will be a drumbeat on Spanish-language television,” Barajas said. “It is the drumbeat happening on the news right now and it will be for at least a couple of weeks. There will be a constant reminder from the other side [Democrats] about who ended this program.”

Both men said the politically toxic effect of the decision could be amplified by the timing, as it comes soon after Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz.

Separately, Alvarado said that California offers a particularly instructive example for Republicans when it comes to Latino voters.

In 1994, incumbent Republican Gov. Pete Wilson made support for Proposition 187 a key element in his reelection campaign. That ballot initiative sought to bar illegal immigrants from using most state services and established a citizenship screening process.

Proposition 187 passed by a wide margin and Wilson won a second term, but they were Pyrrhic victories. The episode is widely held to have fired up California’s growing Latino population and alienated them from Republicans for decades.

Republicans have not won a Senate election in the state since, nor has a GOP nominee carried it in a presidential election. The party’s only successful candidate for major statewide office since that time was two-term Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is atypical as both an immigrant and a movie star.

Now, Republicans and independent experts alike wonder if they might be witnessing a “Pete Wilson moment” on a national scale.

“Trump is energizing Latinos, I suppose,” said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which bills itself as a nonpartisan public policy organization with a Latino focus.

“This is exactly what happened with Prop. 187. There were only two years where Latinos turned out for midterm elections at the same rate as in presidential elections. That was 1994 and 1998 — and those two elections are what transformed California from a purple state to a blue state.”

Alvarado, the GOP strategist, agreed, saying that “we’ve seen this before in California” with Proposition 187.

The GOP, he lamented, does “not hold any statewide office because of the effervescency against Republicans in California. That is exactly the danger Republicans face with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE at the helm.”

Yet Trump has defied expectations before. In November, he held Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE’s winning margin among Hispanic voters to 38 points (66-28), according to exit polls. Four years previously, Obama had defeated GOP nominee Mitt Romney by 44 points (71-27) with the same group.

To some, that was a sign that Trump’s message of disruption, in addition to his promise of more jobs and rising wages, had resonated with part of the Hispanic community. Others note that Trump’s actual share of the Hispanic vote was virtually identical to Romney’s and suggest this might be a “floor” of reliably Republican voters among Latinos.

There is also the chance that Trump’s move will resonate with his base deeply enough to offset any losses among Hispanic voters.

The decision to end DACA is the fulfillment of a campaign pledge. On the trail, Trump referred to DACA as an “illegal amnesty” that had to be ended — though he softened that rhetoric soon after being inaugurated, often talking of handling the issue “with heart.”

Groups that support reduced immigration welcomed Trump’s decision to end DACA. Roy Beck, the president of one such group, NumbersUSA, described it as “a wonderful Labor Day present to unemployed American millennials.”

Another conservative group, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, described the decision as “proper, proactive action.”

Trump himself, who often relishes bare-knuckle rhetoric, was more muted on the DACA decision. Speaking to reporters before a White House meeting on tax reform Tuesday, he said he had “a great heart” for the people who have benefited from the program.

The program provides people who entered the United States illegally before the age of 16 with renewable two-year work permits and frees them from the threat of deportation, so long as they meet certain conditions. Around 800,000 people are in the program.

“I have a love for these people, and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly,” Trump said.

On Tuesday evening, he appeared to soften his position even more, writing on Twitter that if Congress did not "legalize DACA" he would then "revisit the issue."

The constitutionality of Obama’s action in enacting DACA has long been hotly debated. Obama did so only after Congress failed to act — and after he himself had seemed to suggest that he did not have such expansive powers. A later policy constructed along broadly similar lines — DAPA, or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans — was struck down by the courts.

The Trump administration on Tuesday acted under pressure from the Republican attorneys general of several states who had pledged to mount a legal challenge to DACA if the president did not move.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE and, reportedly, White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE believed that DACA was unlikely to survive such a challenge, and some people who support the policy goals of the program agree.

Still, polls show broad sympathy for DACA beneficiaries. An NBC News-Survey Monkey poll released last week indicated that 64 percent of American adults support the program, compared to just 30 percent who oppose it.

Obama weighed in via Facebook on Tuesday, calling Trump’s move “wrong,” “cruel” and “self-defeating.”

The former president meant the last term in the sense of “bad for the nation.” But the experts who spoke to The Hill argued that Trump himself had also fallen victim to another self-inflicted wound.

“He has turbo-charged the Latino community against him,” Gonzalez said.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.