Campaign

Democrats gear up to hit GOP senators on DACA

Democrats and Latino-focused outside groups are preparing to weaponize the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program against vulnerable Senate Republicans.

The high court is poised to rule any week now on whether President Trump's termination of DACA was lawful. If the justices come down on his side, it would clear the path for the administration to strip protections for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants known as "Dreamers" currently shielded by the Obama-era program.

The decision could impact races for a number of seats Democrats are hoping to flip, such as those of Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

If the Supreme Court rules in their favor, Latino groups say they will continue to engage voters around the issue of immigration, pointing to Trump's broader hard-line stance on the issue. 

"As we've seen in the last three years, Trump has even gone as far as to use the pain and the fear of DACA recipients as a leverage to get more money for his wall and more funding for the deportation force," said Cristina Jiménez, the executive director of United We Dream. 

DACA advocates and Democrats may face an uphill battle in breaking through the political noise in an election cycle that has been overrun by the coronavirus pandemic and widespread economic upheaval.

"The decision could get lost in the pandemonium," said Chuck Rocha, a former senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) presidential campaign who now runs Nuestro PAC, a super PAC focused on Latino outreach and voter turnout. 

But a ruling as sweeping as eliminating DACA could prove to be a powerful motivating factor for Latino voters eager to see the program's protections permanently enshrined into law, he said. Nuestro PAC is already preparing DACA-focused advertisements that it plans to run against vulnerable GOP senators if the Supreme Court hands down an unfavorable ruling. 

"Our community will not let that decision be lost and not heard. The PAC that I run, Nuestro PAC, if this decision is not favorable will use this in Senate races around the country," Rocha said, pointing to McSally and Gardner as two potential targets. 

The Cook Political Report rates both McSally and Gardner's races as "toss-ups," and polling shows both senators trailing the front-runners in their states' respective Democratic primaries. 

In Arizona, some 45,000 people are eligible for DACA, according to an estimate by the Migration Policy Institute, while in Colorado, approximately 30,000 are eligible.

Arizona also has some 1.2 million potential Latino voters, behind only California, Texas, Florida and New York. 

Democrats in both Arizona and Colorado say they plan to go on the offensive with DACA, pointing to the grassroots organizing on the issue already taking place in the states by groups like the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

The organization notably confronted Gardner during a town hall over last year his stance on the American Dream and Promise Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status. The legislation passed through the House last year, but has yet to be taken up in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority.

Gardner, in particular, is a moderate on immigration, supporting legislation in the past to protect DACA beneficiaries.

Democrats, however, say he is vulnerable on the issue because of the tougher stance assumed by Trump.

"On immigration in particular, that has put [Gardner] in this tough spot where part of how Trump holds his base together is being really extreme on some of these immigration issues, like the border wall," said a Democratic operative in Colorado.

Outside Latino groups say that while they are still in pandemic response mode, they are launching their own efforts to motivate voters on DACA, including increased efforts on voter engagement and mail-in ballots. 

"For the community and us, the priority is to respond to the pandemic," said Héctor Sánchez Barba, the executive director and CEO of Mi Familia Vota. "But we make sure there is an understanding that we cannot keep our eyes off this important election at all levels because so much is on the line, and DACA is one of the examples." 

Latino groups say that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Trump will only end up energizing more voters. 

"For us it is a significant moment to activate voters across the country when the decision comes to ensure that we're protecting immigrants, including the recipients in November," Jiménez said. "Voters have been very aware of the efforts of Trump to target this community, and we see that in the polling." 

A survey conducted by Hart Research for the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund last month showed 70 percent of voters overall supported DACA, while 21 percent said they opposed it. 

Polling ahead of the 2018 midterm elections showed similar findings.

A Pew Research Center poll released in June of 2018 found that 74 percent of respondents said they supported legal status for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children. And a CBS News poll released in January of 2018 showed that 87 percent of respondents said that DACA recipients should be allowed to remain in the U.S. if they meet certain requirements, like going to work or attending school. 

DACA began in 2012 under then-President Obama as a way to temporarily protect undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors from deportation. The program also extends work permits to Dreamers.

Trump announced in 2017 that he was rescinding DACA, arguing that it was an overreach of Obama's executive authority and that it is up to Congress - not the president - to address the legal status of its beneficiaries.

That move spawned a deluge of lawsuits from immigration advocates, who allege that the way the administration tried to end DACA violated equal protection and due process rights.

Trump said last year that he would be willing to reach a deal with Democratic lawmakers for 700,000 undocumented people to remain in the U.S. - as long as the Supreme Court rules in his favor on DACA. 

"Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from 'angels,' " Trump tweeted in November. "Some are very tough, hardened criminals. President Obama said he had no legal right to sign order, but would anyway. If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!" 

There have been a handful of attempts in Congress to pass legislation addressing the legal status of Dreamers, though none have survived. A bipartisan immigration proposal failed the Senate in 2018 after drawing the support of only eight Republicans, including Gardner another now-vulnerable GOP incumbent, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine). 

Danny Friedman, the managing director of the nonprofit group Voto Latino, said there's little chance that Senate Republicans move on the House-passed Dream and Promise Act - or any other Dreamer-related legislation - before the November elections. But he said the Supreme Court's pending decision will give candidates and advocacy groups a chance to spotlight the issue at a time when it might otherwise be overshadowed.

"I'm not saying I'm optimistic that the Senate is going to make any decisions. But I do think that in some of these elections that are going to be decided by a small margin, I think it's important for people to take a stand and I think the broader electorate is going to force the question," Friedman said.

"I think the court's decision is going to give folks an opportunity to speak on this issue," he added. "It's certainly going to be a political issue for the folks who are challenging those senators as well." 

DACA supporters also cite the potentially negative impact of expelling a large number of immigrants in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis. 

"Entire sectors of the economy depend on the work of immigrants, especially on the pandemic," said Sánchez Barba of Mi Familia Vota. 

"On the one hand, we have Trump saying and implementing all of these anti-immigrant policies. On the other hand, he's signing executive orders mandating that employees go to work, like in the meat packing industries," he added. "It's a hypocritical approach."

Outbrain