The Republican Party's brittle relationship with Hispanic voters absorbed another blow Tuesday when President Trump rolled back a constitutionally questionable program granting residency to illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Scrapping the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive action implemented by President Barack Obama in 2012 has thrown the future of nearly 1 million young, mostly Hispanic, unauthorized immigrants into limbo.
Republicans are likely to take the blame, with their support among nonwhite voters further deteriorating, even though Trump ordered a six-month delay to give Congress time to pass legislation protecting these and other undocumented immigrants who mostly grew up in the United States.
"There will be some political fallout for the party — the brand of the party — as a result of this decision," said Daniel Garza, president of the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative group that focuses on Hispanic outreach. "Trump is a Republican and his decisions have national implications."
The Republican Party has seen its support from Hispanic and other nonwhite voters diminish precipitously since the 2004 presidential election, despite aggressive outreach. By 2016, Trump won only 28 percent of the Hispanic vote nationally.
Trump's abrasive rhetoric about Mexican and other illegal immigrants, since Day 1 of his presidential campaign, has made matters worse
His lack of support with nonwhites broadly cost him and other Republicans on the ballot in battlegrounds Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia, not to mention liberal strongholds.
Republicans, even those who support legalizing the so-called "Dreamers," adult immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, generally opposed DACA on the grounds that it superseded congressional authority to make law.
But many of them now fret that yanking the program sends a signal of exclusion to nonwhite voters and could relegate the GOP to permanent minority status in diverse states with rising Hispanic populations, similar to what happened in California in the 1990s after passage of a voter initiative denying state services to illegal immigrants.
"Certainly this DACA position shows a total lack of heart and is probably the final straw in the Republican Party's ability to bring Latinos into the tent," said a Republican strategist based in the Southwest, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly. "It will also help drive moderates away. We can't spit in their faces and then extend a hand of welcome."
Republican infighting on immigration issues has been a constant for more than a decade. Some back comprehensive immigration reform that would legalize illegal immigrants; others, like Trump, oppose any form of amnesty. Indeed, a growing faction of Republicans, also led by the president, support reducing legal immigration.
The disagreement has sunk GOP efforts to reform immigration more than once.
That is why Democrats, and many Republicans who favor legalizing the Dreamers, don't put much stock in the six months Trump has given Congress to send him a bill before he starts rescinding regulations allowing this cohort to live and work in the U.S.
Others see an unparalleled political opportunity to improve the party's standing with nonwhites in Trump's approach.
The president told reporters: "I have a great heart for these folks we're talking about … I have a love for these people and hopefully, now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly … I think it's going to work out very well and long term it's going to be the right solution."
Trump's comments suggest he would sign Dreamer legislation, though in exactly what form he would accept a bill remains unclear.
His emphasis in these remarks on showing compassion, as long as it's done in accordance with the law and national security, fits with where most Republican voters are, say Republican insiders who have studied GOP voters' opinions of the immigration issue.
Republican voters' problems aren't with immigration or immigrants, which they actually support, but with illegal immigration and their perception that the government ignores border security and affords special treatment to this particular group of lawbreakers.
Trump's reputation as an immigration hardliner could make it easier for Republicans in Congress to get something done, and that in turn could alter the GOP's image as a party that is hostile to Hispanics and other nonwhite voters at a time when such attitudes are on the brink of hardening.
"It's plausible that the president's action drives the market in Congress for passage of a constitutional, statutory solution that protects the Dreamers permanently and this ends up being a big help to the country and the Republican brand both," a Republican consultant said.