TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – President Donald Trump's decision to do away with his predecessor's policy that benefited hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” has put Florida Republicans in a bind.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday that the Trump administration intends to do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a policy implemented by former President Barack Obama in 2012 that shields from deportation young people who were brought to the country by their parents as children.
Trump gave Congress six months to come up with an alternative solution before his administration begins phasing out the policy, which affects about 800,000 people.
“To have a lawful system of immigration … we cannot admit everyone who would like to come here. It's just that simple,” Sessions told reporters.
The announcement from the Trump administration coincided with a deadline in a lawsuit from 10 attorneys general challenging Obama's executive order that was the basis for the program. Florida is not among those states.
But the Trump administration announcement poses a dilemma for Republican politicians in the Sunshine State, which is home to at least 30,000 people who could be affected and is the base for exponentially more Hispanic voters who could be critical to next year's elections.
Gov. Rick Scott, a close ally of Trump who is widely expected to run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year, on Friday issued a statement indicating his support for “dreamers” that stopped short of condemning the president.
Scott said Obama was “wrong to address the dreamers issue by executive order.” But, the governor added, “I do not favor punishing children for the actions of their parents.”
Republicans running for governor were split on the issue, with state Sen. Jack Latvala, who has a long history of supporting “dreamers,” decrying Trump's policy decision in anticipation of the president's announcement.
“We must lead with a compassionate heart, not by punishing children. Florida is a diverse state and our economic success depends on a strong diverse workforce. If DACA ends in 6 months, it will have a disastrous impact not only on hundreds of thousands of bright, promising young people but also on our business climate,” Latvala, R-Clearwater, said Monday.
Latvala was a sponsor of a 2014 measure that allowed “dreamers” to pay in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O' Lakes Republican who is considering a run for governor, took a more hardline approach in a statement released shortly after Session's Tuesday' morning press conference, saying Trump “made the right decision.”
“The rule of law is the rule of law and no one should be above it. Anything less would have been a tacit acceptance of President Obama's backdoor amnesty plan for illegal immigrants,” Corcoran said. "Yes, this is a difficult decision given those who are involved. But make no mistake, two wrongs do not make a right. This illegal immigration mess we are in today is because of apologists consistently opposing every sensible idea to secure the border and constantly demanding we reward illegal behavior with citizenship. The American people are left with no choice but to enforce the law to its fullest extent."
In advance of Tuesday's announcement, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Palm Coast Republican who is also mulling a bid for governor, said in a Facebook post: “DACA is unconstitutional and the president is duty-bound to rescind it.”
The issue could force Florida GOP candidates, trying to appeal to base voters in advance of next year's elections, to walk a tightrope in a state where Trump handily won the Republican primary and defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in November's general election.
Major parts of the business community -- a powerful interest group for Republican candidates -- support DACA, while Trump's base voters back the president's tougher immigration approach, said Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner.
“That's a difficult chasm for Republicans statewide to navigate, to draw those Republican portions of the electorate together,” Wagner said.
Political consultant Wayne Bertsch, who specializes in GOP state legislative races, predicted that some Republican candidates “are going to have to do a tap dance” in response to Trump's recall of the policy.
Bertsch pointed out that the GOP-dominated Legislature has already approved the measure that allowed “dreamers” to pay in-state tuition.
“While it was a lengthy debate, they passed it and the governor signed it,” Bertsch said. “I think Florida Republicans have defined themselves as, `We're compassionate. We don't need to be deporting these children … back to a country where their parents came from but they have no relationship to.' ”
While Trump's policy “is going to make some of them cringe,” Bertsch said he doesn't believe Trump's policy shift regarding DACA will harm Florida Republicans, regardless of their positions.
“We didn't see any Republicans in the last primary or general elections lose because they supported dreamers,” Bertsch said.
But for Jack Oliver, the founder of Floridians for E-verify Now and the legislative director of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, there's no wiggle-room for GOP candidates.
“A lot of these candidates run on being hardliners on immigration and then they get in and then they forget what they said, or they get influenced by the Chamber of Commerce or others,” Oliver, a 67-year-old who lives in North Palm Beach, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday. “It's just been a big disappointment for a lot of voters.”
While he and his cohorts recognize that the DACA situation “is a complicated one,” Oliver said that “our immigration laws were made to protect Americans,” who are now suffering from “the unintended consequences of leaving our borders open.”
Trump's decision gives Congress six months to come up with a new DACA plan, effectively buying time not only for the president but also for incumbent GOP representatives as well as candidates who may be loath to criticize a president who remains popular with the Republican base, the voters who show up en masse in mid-term elections like Florida's governor's race next year.
“I think all that happened today is you may get a barometer for those who are extra-extreme to the right on immigration as opposed to those who are more right of center. For everyone else, the president did what he promised,” said David Custin, a Miami-based Republican strategist.
But Custin warned of problems if Congress doesn't act.
“If they don't do something on DACA, lives are going to get ruined,” Custin said. “People are going to suffer or risk being deported.”