Texas GOP border hawk rebukes Trump’s migrant crisis plans

Then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen greets then-House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, as she arrives for a House Homeland Security Committee subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 26, 2018.
Then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen greets then-House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, as she arrives for a House Homeland Security Committee subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 26, 2018. AP

Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, one of Capitol Hill’s highest-ranking Republicans and staunchest border security advocates, is now using his influence to push back on the Trump administration’s policies to address the influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The move comes as Democrats are targeting McCaul’s district for the first time in his 15 years in Congress, putting him and other Texas Republicans in the new position of seeking distance from President Trump and his more controversial policies.

McCaul, now the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, railed against Trump’s plans to cut foreign aid to countries in Central America as “reckless” and “ill-advised” at a hearing Wednesday.

“Cutting these programs would be counterproductive and make the situation worse not better,” said McCaul, who stressed that the programs Trump wants to cut are aimed at reducing violence causing people to flee to the U.S. border. “I think it’s the wrong message at the wrong time.”

Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the Trump Administration's plans to cut aid in Central America would end programs that are working.

It’s an aggressive approach for the former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, who has staked his career on conservative border solutions.

But McCaul is a top Democratic target after winning an unexpectedly close re-election battle by just four percentage points against an opponent with few resources on 2018. McCaul is one of six House Republicans that Democrats are aiming to unseat in Texas in 2020.

Texas Republicans worry those once-reliably red districts have changed so quickly that incumbents haven’t had time to carve profiles aimed at attracting voters outside their own party. Instead, they’ve focused their attention on a GOP base that cares deeply about border security and immigration.

“It gets tricky because these districts are going in the direction of [Rep.] Will Hurd’s district, but they aren’t quite there yet,” said one Texas GOP strategist familiar with the campaign, referring to a perennial swing district near McCaul’s.

“Republican voters in their districts are more used to getting the red meat from their congressmen. That’s what they’ve come to expect,” added the strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about campaign strategy.

Hurd, a Republican, has long carved-out a role bucking his party on immigration issues in a border district that’s swung between the two parties.

McCaul has shifted to the middle on several other key issues in recent weeks.

Earlier this month, McCaul signed onto a Democrat-led plan to protect insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, despite voting repeatedly to repeal Obamacare over the past decade.

He also joined a handful of other Texas Republicans in voting to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act last week, bucking the wishes of the National Rifle Association, which opposed it for expanding some gun purchasing restrictions.

McCaul has plenty of experience working across the aisle on Capitol Hill, even on polarizing issues. He and Rep. Eliot Engel, who chairs the Foreign Affairs panel, traveled to Central America together earlier this month, returning with a plan to beef up the aid Trump wants to cut.

“Chairman Engel and I have been discussing areas to plus-up the budget. We’ve even been talking to the secretary and Mark Green about it,” McCaul said of his plans for foreign aid, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the administrator for United States Agency for International Development.

“I think you’re going to see a foreign assistance package coming out of the committee that’s different from the president’s,” McCaul added, in an interview with the Star-Telegram Tuesday.

Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs committee, describes the foreign aid programs he observed in Central American on a recent trip with Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel, D-New York, April 9, 2019.

Democrats on Capitol Hill say that approach is an encouraging sign lawmakers on Capitol Hill can still find common ground on issues related to the border, even as the Trump administration seeks to overhaul the staff of the Department of Homeland Security with hardline replacements.

“All of the goals of the president, from limiting undocumented immigration, to combating the rise of China in the Western Hemisphere … all of that is hurt by cutting aid funding to Central America and the Northern Triangle countries,” said Rep. Colin Allred, a Texas Democrat on the Foreign Affairs committee. Of McCaul, he added: “It’s something he’s done a great job leading on, and I think a model for how we need to be approaching this issue.”

But conservative Republicans warn that bucking the proposed cuts to foreign aid would take away a valuable tool for the president to address an issue of major importance to the GOP base. The Trump administration wants the countries to take a bigger role in stopping migrants from leaving their country to seek asylum in the U.S.

“We have the right and obligation to use foreign aid in ways that are positive and negative to those who receive it,” said Rep. Ron Wright, a Foreign Affairs Republican from Trump-friendly north Texas. “Those countries clearly are not doing enough to stop the flow up here.”

McCaul contends his moves are motivated by years of experience Trump doesn’t have, as well as uphold his own commitment to conservative border security values.

“I understand the president’s frustration with the crisis on the southern border, I share that frustration,” said McCaul, whose massive 10th district stretches from Austin to Houston.

“The anti-gang, anti drug-trafficking and rule of law programs of USAID, INL (the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs) and law enforcement are critical to protecting the United States,” he added. “I think the decision to cut funding will make the economic and security situation in Central America worse, not better, triggering more migration, not less, to the United States.”

Back home, Democrats say McCaul’s newly aggressive approach to the president won’t be enough to separate from policies have already cost the GOP support in the suburbs since Trump’s election.

The Latino voting age population in McCaul’s district has increased by more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2016, according to data shared by House Democrats’ campaign arm.

“During the family separation policy… he was chairman of the committee that could have started an investigation that could have highlighted the abuses and could have stopped that policy,” said Mike Siegel, a teacher and civil rights lawyer who ran against McCaul in 2018 and is again seeking the Democratic nomination in the district in 2020.

“My job as a candidate is to raise the money and build a strong campaign to let everybody know that their representative has been complicit in these atrocities,” said Siegel.

Andrea Drusch is the Washington Correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She is a Corinth, Texas, native and graduate of the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University. She returns home frequently to visit family, get her fix of Fuzzy’s Tacos and cheer on the Horned Frogs.