Last week President Trump announced he was phasing out the Obama-era program to protect undocumented immigrants brought here as children, known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).
The decision was widely derided by Democrats and Latinos as mean-spirited, unfaithful to those who were raised as Americans and economically counterproductive. “It's wrong because it's cruel to send these young people to places many of them have never lived and do not know,” former President Bill Clinton said. “For them this is home. The United States is their home.”
It might also be counterproductive for the Republican Party. On the coattails of President Trump, the party has turned, sometimes halfheartedly, toward the white, working class of the South and Midwest. It has appealed to a sense of loss and entitlement held by Americans raised in the manufacturing riches of the postwar era. But, with DACA as a policy centerpiece, it also turned its back on the fastest-growing ethnic or racial group of voters, Latinos.
“It's a pivotal moment,” says veteran Republican strategist Mike Madrid.
A similar thing happened in California in 1994. A state senator named Dick Mountjoy proposed ending social services and public education for the undocumented. Though he had tried to introduce the legislation on 27 other occasions, when Proposition 187 finally made the ballot that year, it was a hit. Gov. Pete Wilson pushed the voter-approved initiative with an anti-immigrant ad campaign that used the language, “Enough is enough.” A famous pro-Proposition 187 spot added more fuel to the fire, stating, “They keep coming.”
Republicans felt triumphant. After moderate, pro-reform positions on immigration by presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the California GOP stepped onto a sure-fire platform and were on top. Until they weren't.
Today, in the state that brought the world Reagan and Richard Nixon, only about 1 in 4 voters is a registered Republican. When Bill Clinton won the White House, it also marked the end of the Golden State voting red in national contests. This decade Latinos surpassed whites as the state's largest racial or ethnic group. Californians haven't elected a Republican to major statewide office since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reign in the '00s. Nearly two-thirds of Latino voters nationwide are registered as Democrats. They'll head to the polls in the midterm congressional elections next year in what could be a post-DACA world.
“DACA most certainly is Proposition 187 writ large,” Chapman University political scientist Fred Smoller said via email.
Experts attribute some of California Latinos' blue party loyalty to the scar that was Proposition 187, which was ultimately struck down in court. “California has not been the same since Proposition 187,” Los Angeles City Council member Gil Cedillo, elected to the state Assembly a few years after the measure passed, said via email.
“The GOP's inability to embrace diversity has negatively affected its livelihood in California, and we are starting to see diminishing support in historically conservative regions around the state,” he said. “Standing with Trump, or not standing up to Trump, will definitely hamper the GOP's influence in future elections and, most importantly, with the growing Latino populations, both in terms of population and political representation.”
But Louis DeSipio, a UC Irvine Latino studies and political science professor, isn't so sure DACA is putting the nation on the same course taken by the California GOP after Proposition 187. “DACA's repeal will certainly mean some swing districts in California, South Florida and South Texas could move into the Democratic camp, but the geography of the nation doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a strongly Democratic Congress out of it,” he says.
Trump and his moves against the undocumented are also reinforcing a GOP base, DeSipio points out. “Those Trump districts, if anything, became even more anti-immigrant after Trump's election and after the rise of the Tea Party.”
Still, Republicans have an uphill battle. The growth of voting among immigrants and American-born Latinos will continue in the next few decades, even as south-of-the-border immigration has all but stopped. “The immigrants voting today were naturalized in the 1990s and 2000s,” DeSipio says. “The growth of Latino voting will not end until long after the slowdown in immigration.”
While the end of DACA could be the national GOP's Proposition 187, experts see it as just one of many failures for a party that, like all parties, needs as many friends as it can get. “I think the national 187 GOP moment was also the election of Donald Trump,” says Jose Moreno, Anaheim City Council member and president of the nonprofit Los Amigos of Orange County.
“DACA repeal is one more element that has turned the Trump presidency into a Proposition 187 moment,” Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials) Education Fund, said via email. “President Trump’s anti-Latino and anti-Mexican statements and actions, since the day he began his campaign for the presidency, have cemented his place in history as a polarizing political figure that used Latinos as the ultimate wedge to divide the American people. Latinos in California still remember Gov. Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 from 1994 — some 23 years later. President Trump’s legacy will be much longer-lasting.”
While Republican strategist Madrid calls Democrats' focus on GOP gerrymandering and voter fraud prevention “a liberal boogeyman,” he says Latinos' repulsion is real. “You can't draw enough lines to protect yourself,” he says of redistricting.
“As someone who has lived through Proposition 187, DACA is significantly greater, more impactful and with possibly longer consequences,” he says. “It's DACA, but it's also building a [southern border] wall, reducing immigration, saying Mexicans are criminals and rapists. The road map is clear on where the party is heading nationally. Every indication is that it's similar to the path taken by the party in California.”
Madrid says there's still a chance for the GOP to woo Latinos, particularly if Republicans in Congress stand up and, as Trump has urged them to do, save DACA legislatively. But Trump's current agenda is, well, putting up a wall. “There are voices in the party saying this is not who we are, this is not what conservatism is, far more than what I heard in California in the mid-1990s,” he says.
“I'm not sure if Latinos would ever look to the GOP as the party for them,” says Councilman Moreno. “But Congress saving DACA could stop the bleeding.”
Speaking via email, Cristobal J. Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, agreed.
“For decades, the GOP has lost Latino voters with its anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies,” he said. “From Pete Wilson to Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio, anti-Latino politicians have driven us to the polls. But President Trump may prove to be the greatest Latino organizer of all time.
“Regardless of our immigration status, Latinos see President Trump’s rescission of DACA for what it is — a full-on declaration of war on our community,” he continued. “If Republicans do not immediately act to shield Dreamers from deportation, Latino voters will hold them personally accountable.”