Democrats criticizing the Trump administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents at the southern border are trying to reap a political windfall over the issue — particularly in California races where Republicans have sought to put the party on the defensive over sanctuary laws.
While Republicans scold Democrats for politicizing the issue, they’re teetering between supporting President Trump and appealing to their constituents who are offended by the news coming from the border.
A CBS News poll released Monday found that 67 percent of adults surveyed — including 66 percent of independent voters — found it “unacceptable” to separate children from parents who have been apprehended trying to enter the country illegally. The same survey reported that approval of Trump’s policies on immigration had dropped from 40 percent in May to 35 percent this month.
“This has the potential to get a lot of new people involved — people who don’t necessarily get involved in the daily back and forth of political stuff,” said Karthik Ganapathy, rapid response director for the liberal activist hub MoveOn. The group announced plans for marches on June 30 in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere to draw attention to the issue.
“People see this as different because it involves kids taken from their parents,” Ganapathy said. “You don’t need to be a genius to know that won’t play well, not only in California but across the country.”
One race where the issue could have an impact is in the Central Valley congressional district represented by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock (Stanislaus County). Even though Denham has been at the forefront of efforts to put undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors on a path to citizenship, his Democratic opponent in the November election is seeking to tie him to Trump’s actions on the border.
“The images, the videos that we’re seeing are frankly atrocious and cruel — not a representation of American values,” said Josh Harder, who finished second to Denham in this month’s primary. “To see people locked up in cages — it’s deeply mobilizing for people in this district.”
It could be deeply mobilizing because 40 percent of Denham’s 10th Congressional District is Latino, and the Republican had a weak showing in the primary — landing only 38 percent of the vote in an eight-candidate field. Last week, Harder and representatives of more than a dozen organizations demonstrated in front of Denham’s district offices to call attention to the migrant issue.
“This is where these problems are front and center,” Harder said. “Everybody in the Central Valley knows folks who are affected by these sorts of policies.”
Denham’s district is one of seven in California that Democrats have targeted as part of their campaign to win 23 GOP-held seats nationwide in November and retake the House. After several months of Republican efforts to shore up their California seats by campaigning against Democrats’ sanctuary state laws, Democrats see the migrant-children issue as an opportunity to refocus the immigration debate.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco called on Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to resign Monday, with Pelosi calling the administration’s actions “barbaric.”
Nielsen has been at the center of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for migrants at the U.S. southern border, a change from the practice of releasing detainees who arrive with children as their legal cases proceed. As a result of the change, the government is holding at least 2,000 migrant children whose parents are being held separately in detention centers.
On Monday, Nielsen told the National Sheriffs’ Association in New Orleans, “We will not apologize for the job we do, or the job law enforcement does, or the job the American people expect us to do.” Later, at a White House news conference, she said that if lawmakers want to keep children from being separated from their parents, they should act on immigration legislation pending before the House.
Two bills could come up for votes this week, but Democratic support for them is minimal to nonexistent because they would restrict legal immigration and spend billions on a wall along the Mexican border. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has introduced legislation that would bar families from being separated, but it has no Republican co-sponsors.
John Cox, the GOP candidate for California governor in November and one of the Republicans who has denounced sanctuary policies that limit local authorities’ cooperation with federal immigration agents, sought to put the responsibility for children being taken from their parents on “politicians in Washington” — and made a distinction between them and Trump.
“The president of the United States has tried to solve this problem,” Cox said. “Get the politicians together and solve this problem, get a plan that works so we can have an immigration system where we get people in this country and we don’t separate women and children.”
GOP consultant Dave Gilliard said Denham and Republicans he represents who are facing tough House races in Orange County — Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Irvine, and Young Kim and Diane Harkey, who are running for seats being vacated by GOP incumbents — all oppose separating migrant families at the border. They also all oppose California’s sanctuary state laws.
Gilliard thinks voters can make the same distinction.
“A voter can make a conscious decision that the sanctuary laws that the state has are bad and not productive in the way that we approach immigration law,” Gilliard said. “And they can also believe that we shouldn’t be separating families.”
Nathan Miller, a Republican who has been working to organize opposition to sanctuary laws, agreed, but said Monday that he worried that the migrant children issue “is being taken out of context.”
“This is being used,” Miller said, “as a tool to motivate people on the left.”
MoveOn’s Ganapathy said even people not into politics were moved Monday by media coverage of children sobbing at detention camps. It put the issue “in a league of its own,” he said, noting that some opponents have likened separating children from their parents to interning Japanese Americans during World War II.
“People are saying, ‘What would you do if you were there then?’” Ganapathy said. “It feels like a historic moment, in a horrifying way.”
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Melody Gutierrez contributed to this report.