Politics & Government

Congress’ Dreamer dealing puts Cornyn on immigration tightrope

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, testifies during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the nomination of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to become the US ambassador to Russia.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, testifies during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the nomination of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to become the US ambassador to Russia. AP

Texas Republican John Cornyn, whose past immigration work has earned him enemies on both the left and right, could face his toughest challenge on the issue yet in Congress’ Dreamer dilemma.

As the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, Cornyn is responsible for pushing his party’s hard line against illegal immigration — which includes the tough task of brokering a deal to protect young undocumented immigrants while enacting tough border security measures.

But as a senator from a state where both the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the nation’s immigration policies have an outsized impact, he’s also keenly aware of the effect any eventual deal could have on his home state’s politics — and his own political future.

Cornyn faces re-election in 2020 in a state where Republicans often face greater threats in primaries than general elections. But both Republicans and Democrats in Texas believe the route Republicans take on immigration policy during President Donald Trump’s first term could reshape the state’s solidly red politics in the not-so distant future.

By wading into the middle of one of the most contentious issues dividing the national base, Cornyn risks alienating allies on both flanks. If he succeeds, he could steer Texas Republicans toward what he sees as a sustainable future with the state’s rapidly changing population, where Latinos are swiftly gaining clout.

“I think President Trump has given us a great opportunity to get something that he campaigned on, that all of us have said we’re for, which is increased border security and enforcement of the law,” Cornyn said last week of Congress’s ongoing DACA discussions.

At the same time, he added, Congress needs to “provide some relief” for the more than 800,000 children living in the country under the program’s protections, “showing a little bit of compassion for young adults whose circumstances are not of their own making.”

Long an advocate for bringing minorities into his party, Cornyn is now using his leverage in Senate leadership to push his party toward a border security plan he hopes can satisfy both the eager GOP tough-on-immigration bloc and the nuanced immigration interests of his home state.

His proposal includes funding for the Republicans’ eagerly-sought border wall, but not the unbroken concrete wall Trump has championed. In some places, the Cornyn plan adds surveillance technology and border security guards in places along the border where a wall is less practical, such as through Texas’s Big Bend National Park.

Cornyn worked on the plan with another Texas Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul. The House Homeland Security Committee approved McCaul’s bill last week.

Cornyn’s proposal falls well short of the immigration crackdowns the White House has said it wants from DACA negotiations.

The administration plan, released Sunday night, includes changes to legal immigration and asylum policies, in exchange for protection for the young adults living in the country under DACA’s protections. About 125,000 Dreamers live in Texas.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are now reviewing Trump’s ideas. Texas Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser, who has worked for Cornyn, McCaul and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that while those conversations are still in the early stages, Texans are wary of White House immigration policies crafted by hardliners.

“All of the polling I’ve seen on Hispanic voters in Texas… shows there’s a lot of room on border security,” said Steinhauser.

“But where Republicans will lose elections in 2020 and beyond, and where the Republican Party in Texas has to be concerned, is with the harsher stuff, starting with the rhetoric,” notably talk about “mass deportation,” he added.

Cornyn is sensitive to that nuance. In his 2014 re-election campaign, he energetically courted the state’s Latino voters, including hiring Spanish-speaking campaign staff and targeting Hispanic surnames from the voter database with Facebook ads. He won 48 percent of the Hispanic vote that year, beating his Democratic opponent among Latinos. Two years later, Trump won 34 percent of the state’s Latino vote.

“I think it’s critical that Republicans grow the party and welcome people of all different ethnicities and races and backgrounds, especially in a state as big and diverse as Texas,” Cornyn said of those efforts.

But critics on both sides of the immigration argument say Cornyn has a troublesome history on immigration. They say he’s let them down in the past.

In 2006 and 2013 immigration reform efforts, Cornyn spoke favorably about the need for reform, and in 2006 helped craft a proposal. He also pushed for additional border security measures in both years’ negotiations, which opponents said that would have killed the chances of getting Democratic support. Cornyn ultimately voted against reform bills in both years.

In 2010, he was one of a handful of Republicans who didn’t support the Dream Act, which would have given protections to young people brought into the country illegally. Cornyn supported an earlier version of the Dream Act.

“This is a pattern we’ve seen over the years with John Cornyn, he’s a pretender,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice.

In the negotiating room, Sharry said, Cornyn “always finds a way to get to no,” so he can “go back home and tell the right wing what they want to hear and tell the business crowd what they want to hear.”

Groups that want to reduce immigration are also anxious about Cornyn’s role in the current debate.

“In the past, he’s shown himself to be a weak negotiator,” said Roy Beck, president of the immigration-reduction group NumbersUSA. “It sometimes seems like Sen. Cornyn is looking for fig leaves, something to cause voters to think something has been done on illegal immigration in order to make it possible to get amnesty [for people living here illegally].”

“It seems like that’s what he’s doing right now [on DACA],” Beck added.

Beck said Cornyn’s current plan wastes an opportunity to enact real reform because it focuses on border security, but not changes in immigration policy to reduce the number of people entering the country legally.

Cornyn told reporters last week that he believes negotiations should be “narrowly focused on the DACA fix,” and “the most logical way forward is to tie that to border security and interior enforcement.”

Any deal Congress reaches on DACA will require support from Democrats, who have given mixed signals on what they’ll accept.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi met with Trump last month. They said they were open to some increased border security measures, but not a funding for a wall. Though Cornyn’s plan leaves flexibility on the border barriers, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee made clear they considered Cornyn and McCaul’s proposal to be Trump’s wall.

Other Democrats, including some from Texas, have demanded that a DACA deal be kept separate from border security, causing friction with the party’s leadership.

Some Republicans leading their party’s immigration reform efforts hope Trump’s demands could give them some negotiating room with Democrats, pulling some of them on board with a solution closer to the one Cornyn is proposing.

The chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., said Monday that her caucus would seek to grind congressional business to a halt if Republicans gave in to Trump’s demands.

But, in a nod to other GOP proposals, she added: “You’re seeing lots of legislation, bicameral, that is not nearly as draconian and hardline” as Trump’s.

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch