PAHRUMP, NEVADA/WASHINGTON – Nevada Republicans thought they had put their immigration problems behind them.
After Sen. Harry Reid held onto his seat in 2010 by defending immigrants’ rights and in 2012 President Barack Obama handily won a state that is only 52 percent white, the state’s Republicans backed off their hard-line stance on illegal immigration. The state party called for citizenship for people living in the country illegally, Republicans fell in line behind their popular Hispanic governor, Brian Sandoval, and the GOP swept the 2014 elections while hardly discussing the issue.
But now that detente is over. With elected officials in the state feuding over immigration and the party’s presidential contest in town, passions are raging once again and raising the specter that the party will never resolve the issue even where it is essential for its political survival.
“There is a backlash in general against people who break the law and get away with it,” said Assemblyman Ira Hansen, a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz. “Nevada is very much a microcosm of what’s happened nationally,” he added — elite Republicans turned dovish on immigration, “and that conflicts with the rank and file. … That’s why Trump has taken off so well.”
Nevada’s economy depends on a steady flow of overseas tourists. It is 28 percent Latino, 9 percent Asian-American and leads the nation with the highest rate of people living in the country illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Its immigrant communities — 19 percent of its population was born outside the United States — have helped turn a once reliably Republican state in presidential elections into one that backed Obama twice. Many analysts attribute that to hard-line Republican positions on immigration.
“We seem overwhelmed by the other side because the other side is a lot more vocal,” Fernando Romero, of the nonpartisan Las Vegas group Hispanics in Politics, said.
Romero singled out Donald Trump and Cruz as the most vocal of the GOP presidential contenders. “Unfortunately, those two individuals are doing so much to create that tension and that skepticism that those who maybe have never voted before or that are now becoming U.S. citizens are leaning toward whoever the Democratic candidate would be.”
On Monday evening, Trump was introduced at a heavily attended rally by Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who is synonymous with heated anti-immigration rhetoric. Shortly after Trump took to the stage in an arena in a Las Vegas hotel, his supporters burst into a throaty chant.
“Build that wall! Build that wall!” they shouted — a reference to Trump’s plan to build a wall along the length of the Southern border to stop illegal immigration.
“We’re going to build the wall. And whose going to pay for that wall?” asked Trump.
“Mexico!” shouted the crowd in response.
“They think we’re kidding, too, don’t they folks, huh? We’re not kidding,” added Trump.
“We’re not going to be the dummies, anymore folks. We’re going to be the smart ones,” the GOP front-runner said.
Cruz only treads lightly on immigration in his campaign speeches, but speaking to Fox News on Monday, he took his toughest stance yet, noting that anyone in the U.S. illegally should be sought out and deported.
Asked whether he would send federal law enforcement officers to the home of an immigrant known to be living in the country illegally, Cruz replied: “You’d better believe it.”
Immigration was also the reason many Cruz supporters were opposed to Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped write a bill that would have eventually granted citizenship to many of the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally.
“Anytime you do anything with Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, that goes against my philosophy,” said Ed Horn, 67, a retired air-traffic controller who has switched his allegiance from Trump to Cruz. “I believe he’s going to shut the borders down and be more for legalized immigration, maybe slow it down until our economy comes back.”
Immigration critics contend they can win Nevada’s diverse voters. They point to people like Mario Sevilla, a legal immigrant from Mexico who lives in Las Vegas and ardently backs Cruz. “Rubio was in that Gang of Eight — that’s like an anchor,” Sevilla said. “You lock your doors at night. I can’t get angry at white people” for opposing illegal immigration, he added. “We’ve got laws.”
But Andres Ramirez, a Democratic strategist here, says Republicans are getting boxed in by Trump and, to a lesser extent, Cruz. “We have tea party folks here and we have anti-immigrant folks here in Nevada, but they’re not the dominant voice,” Ramirez said. “But the fact that the (state Republicans) are having to take sides with or condone the stances of their national standard bearers creates a problem.”
The division in the state predates the presidential contest. Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who was elected in the GOP wave of 2014, clashed with Sandoval over the attorney general joining a lawsuit to overturn Obama’s executive action limiting deportations, which is very popular in the state’s Latino community.
Laxalt has endorsed Cruz while most of the rest of the state’s GOP elite is backing Rubio. Laxalt’s top political strategist, Robert Uithoven, is running Cruz’s Nevada campaign.
Uithoven said Republican base discontent is less about immigration and more about GOP politicians not staying true to their conservative principles. He tied the immigration dispute to another divide with Sandoval, who pushed through and signed the largest tax increase in state history last year after Republicans won control of the state legislature.
“This divide between the ruling class and the grass roots doesn’t just exist in Ted Cruz’s mind,” Uithoven said.
Cruz vowed to deport immigrants living illegally in the United States and build a wall to keep others out, sharpening his stance on the issue a week before presidential contests in several southern states.
Cruz’s comments on the eve of Tuesday’s Nevada caucuses came hours after the public firing of his main spokesman over misleading social media postings involving rival Marco Rubio.
Rubio won endorsements on Monday from prominent Republicans as he sought to become the party’s mainstream alternative to front-runner Trump after Jeb Bush dropped out of the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Cruz was asked on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor” if he would round up the 12 million illegal aliens in the country, and how.
“Listen, we should enforce the law. How do we enforce the law? Yes, we should deport them. We should build a wall. We should triple the Border Patrol,” Cruz said. “And federal law requires that anyone here illegally that’s apprehended should be deported.”
Asked if he, like real estate tycoon Trump, would go out and look for them, Cruz replied, “Of course you would. That’s what ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) exists for. We have law enforcement that looks for people who are violating the laws.”
The comments marked a shift from last month, when Cruz rejected sending authorities to find immigrants as “police state” tactics.
“I don’t intend to send jackboots to knock on your door and every door in America. That’s not how we enforce the law for any crime,” Cruz told CNN in an interview on Jan. 10.
Cruz has repeatedly criticized Rubio for having embraced a sweeping immigration reform bill he characterizes as amnesty.
Cruz and other Republican candidates vying to represent their party in the Nov. 8 presidential election have been under pressure to toughen their stance on immigration by Trump’s ferocious rhetoric on the issue.
Trump responded to Cruz’s comments with a trademark Twitter taunt on Tuesday, referring the U.S. senator from Texas’ third-place finish in South Carolina’s primary on Saturday.
“Ted Cruz only talks tough on immigration now because he did so badly in S.C. He is in favor of amnesty and weak on illegal immigration,” Trump said.
The New York billionaire has said he would deport all undocumented immigrants, build a wall and rescind U.S. President Barack Obama’s executive orders on immigration.