Border-State Lawmakers Looking for Distance From Leadership

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: New Democratic Coalition member Rep. Ron Barber (D-AZ) speaks during a news conference about the impending 'fiscal cliff' and other economic issues November 15, 2012 in Washington, DC. The coalition has seven policy committees that include Critical Infrastructure and Manufacturing; Education; Energy; Financial Services; Health Care; Innovation, Competitiveness and Tax Reform; and Trade. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
July 29, 2014, 5:59 p.m.

Wash­ing­ton’s fail­ure to ad­dress an es­cal­at­ing im­mig­ra­tion crisis is mak­ing a mess of cam­paign polit­ics for Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans alike, nowhere more so than along the bor­der, where in­cum­bent can­did­ates are des­per­ately try­ing to dis­tance them­selves from un­pop­u­lar party lead­ers.

Law­makers in both parties have struggled to stave off at­tacks from their chal­lengers. Re­pub­lic­ans have tied Demo­crats to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fail­ure to man­age the crisis, Demo­crats have blamed Re­pub­lic­ans for put­ting off im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and in­cum­bents on both sides have claimed in­de­pend­ence from their parties.

Take Demo­crat­ic Rep. Ron Barber of Ari­zona, who is blam­ing Pres­id­ent Obama, and Re­pub­lic­an Reps. Dav­id Valadao of Cali­for­nia and Steve Pearce of New Mex­ico, who are tout­ing their sup­port for im­mig­ra­tion re­form, which the GOP-con­trolled House re­fused to con­sider.

Both parties’ ef­forts to se­cure His­pan­ic voters is af­fect­ing their im­mig­ra­tion mes­sage too, and in many cases that’s meant put­ting some day­light between their po­s­i­tions and those es­poused by lead­er­ship on the Cap­it­ol. Valadao, for ex­ample, fa­cing a chal­lenge from former con­gres­sion­al staffer Aman­da Renter­ia in a 70 per­cent His­pan­ic dis­trict, has poin­ted to his sup­port for im­mig­ra­tion re­form as Renter­ia cri­ti­cizes him for not do­ing enough.

“There’s a say­ing in Span­ish,” Renter­ia said, “which says, ‘Dime con quién an­das, y te diré quién eres,’ which means, ‘Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.’ ” In oth­er words, it’s dif­fi­cult for a Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent to dis­as­so­ci­ate him­self from party lead­er­ship in a dis­trict that wants re­form. Valadao co­sponsored an im­mig­ra­tion bill in March, but re­fused to sign a dis­charge pe­ti­tion to force a vote in the House, which gave Renter­ia an easy tar­get.

“Do you really want to vote on that bill, or did you just sign on be­cause you have a reelec­tion and you’re in a 70 per­cent Latino dis­trict?” Renter­ia said. “You be­gin to won­der, why didn’t he sign on to that bill for a vote?”

Pearce, an­oth­er Re­pub­lic­an in a ma­jor­ity His­pan­ic dis­trict, has done the same in his race against at­tor­ney Rox­anne “Rocky” Lara. Pearce cam­paign con­sult­ant Dan Hazel­wood even noted that Pearce didn’t vote for John Boehner for House speak­er — a re­mind­er that he can’t be blamed along with House lead­er­ship for the lack of move­ment on re­form.

But Pearce has still struggled to over­come his party’s na­tion­al im­age. The Santa Fe New Mex­ic­an quoted him say­ing he thought Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren have come to the U.S. for jobs rather than for safety, but that he rarely left his hotel while vis­it­ing Guatem­ala and Hon­dur­as — a seem­ingly hy­po­crit­ic­al state­ment that landed him in a Col­bert Re­port seg­ment. The quote was later cla­ri­fied by The New Mex­ic­an to say the group did leave their hotel, just not at night — but not be­fore the dam­age was done.

In Col­or­ado’s 6th Dis­trict, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Mike Coff­man, who gen­er­ally took a hard­line con­ser­vat­ive stance on im­mig­ra­tion when he was first elec­ted in 2008, has gradu­ally moved to the left, but hasn’t en­tirely avoided an im­age of in­sens­it­iv­ity. He didn’t do him­self any fa­vors last week, when he sug­ges­ted that the U.S. open de­ten­tion cen­ters for mi­grants in Cent­ral Amer­ica rather than in the U.S.

Den­ver-based Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant James Mejia ac­cused Coff­man of “vil­lain­iz­ing” im­mig­rants, but said the cri­ti­cism would be sim­il­ar if Coff­man’s op­pon­ent, former state House Speak­er An­drew Ro­man­off, were in of­fice. In the end, the cur­rent crisis has not ne­ces­sar­ily changed the de­bate over im­mig­ra­tion re­form, but it has amp­li­fied cri­ti­cism of in­cum­bents, Mejia said.

“Demo­crats have said, ‘See, look how bad this is. They won’t even talk about asylum for kids, who are fault­less,’ ” Mejia said. “And Re­pub­lic­ans are try­ing to say, ‘We were right, we can’t do everything for every­body.’ Both sides are try­ing to make a polit­ic­al point. It’s more am­muni­tion.”

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