Miami-Dade County

On immigration, Miami congressional race between Carlos Curbelo and Joe Garcia is outlier

Republican Carlos Curbelo, left, is challenging Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, right, to represent Florida’s 26th congressional district.
Republican Carlos Curbelo, left, is challenging Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, right, to represent Florida’s 26th congressional district. Miami Herald files

In the South Florida race for the most competitive Hispanic-majority district in Congress, the two Miami candidates field more questions about immigration reform than about U.S. policy toward Cuba.

“There is no community in the United States that would benefit more from comprehensive immigration reform than South Florida,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Democrat.

“It’s not just an immigration issue. It’s an economic issue,” said Carlos Curbelo, the Republican opposing him. “In many ways, it’s an education issue, too.”

When it comes to immigration, Florida’s 26th congressional district is an outlier.

Nationally, Democrats in close contests are so worried that pro-immigrant stances will leave them shunned by conservative-leaning independent voters that President Barack Obama recently acceded to their concerns and backed off his earlier promise to take executive action before Nov. 4. Most Republicans have taken a hardline approach on immigration to fend off any potential primary challenge.

But in Miami, home to longtime pro-reform Republicans such as Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the call for at least some action is bipartisan.

Curbelo called out the president for being “unwilling to invest political capital to achieve immigration reform.”

“For him, it is more important to protect the political interests of vulnerable Democrats like Joe Garcia,” Curbelo said.

Except Garcia — only days after Obama’s decision not to move forward with his immigration plan — took to the House floor to oppose the delay and chide Republicans for their share of the blame.

“We are deeply disappointed,” he said. “However, we should be angry — angry that this House has not had the courage to take up comprehensive immigration reform.”

Both potential GOP presidential contenders from Florida, former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, have supported bipartisan immigration reform that includes tighter U.S.-Mexico border security as well as a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Immigration politics play out differently in Florida than in the rest of the country. Fourteen percent of the state’s registered voters are Hispanic, but the overwhelming majority are unaffected by most immigration laws. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, while Cuban Americans have special immigration privileges.

Yet the population of non-Cuban Hispanics, most of them South American, has boomed. And southern Miami-Dade County, an agricultural outpost, has long been home to migrant workers from Mexico and Central America.

About 59 percent of the voters in the 26th district, extending from Westchester to Key West, are Hispanic. Nearly half are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census.

Only one other Hispanic-majority congressional district in Texas is nearly as competitive, said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“What’s important to remember in FL-26 is that the Latino majority is far from monolithic,” said Wasserman, who has rated the race a tossup. “If the entire population of the district were Cuban American, this would be a safe Republican seat. But the growing non-Cuban Hispanic share of the population — that is the reason why Joe Garcia has a shot at reelection.”

On paper, the district’s demographics appear to favor Democrats. Obama won by 7 percentage points in 2012. Registered Democrats edge Republicans 35 percent to 34 percent, with 29 percent of voters registered without party affiliation. But more Republicans tend to go to the polls in nonpresidential election years.

That even partisan split and complex ethnic mix make the 26th district a laboratory for political parties to experiment on how much — or how little — to campaign on immigration.

Neither Garcia nor Curbelo, both Cuban Americans, has made immigration a central issue. But the question inevitably comes up.

That was especially true early in the race, before Curbelo won the GOP primary, when a wave of unaccompanied Central American children crossed the border.

The crisis prompted Curbelo to push for more border security, while Garcia argued: “We don’t have a border security problem,” blaming instead a “loophole” in immigration law.

Curbelo, a Miami-Dade School Board member, called the children “victims” but supported returning most of them to their countries if they didn’t qualify for political asylum. Garcia articulates the same policy now — but spent more time during the summer arguing for reforms that would reunify divided families to avert future waves of border crossings.

The biggest flare-up over the issue wasn’t about policy, it was about rhetoric. Garcia, saying border security spending by the federal government is excessive, quipped that “Communism works” — a comment for which he was roundly criticized.

The congressman co-sponsored long-shot reform legislation last year, patterned after Rubio’s successful Senate bill, that has stalled in the House. Since then, Garcia has joined activists demonstrating outside a federal detention facility in South Miami-Dade and has opened his Washington office doors to Miami children to share stories about their deported or soon-to-be-deported parents.

Curbelo bucks some in his party by also supporting an overhaul, as well as the Dream Act, which would allow certain immigrants who were brought into the country illegally by their parents to remain here.

But Garcia contends Curbelo embraces reforms only when they’re popular and won’t be able to stand up to GOP leaders if they continue to block them.

He points to Curbelo’s comment that he was “very satisfied” with the House majority’s efforts. That was in February, shortly after Speaker John Boehner outlined immigration policy principles that included a path to citizenship. Boehner then backtracked after some in his caucus rebelled. In August, Curbelo said House Republicans should sue Obama if he takes far-reaching executive action.

“This is about him wanting to have it all ways,” Garcia said. “He was for comprehensive immigration reform until he was for Boehner. Then he was for suing the president. Then he attacked me when the president didn’t do executive action.”

Democrats have also highlighted past Curbelo statements that have taken a harder line, including when he concluded immigration was “not a core issue” for Florida Hispanics in the 2010 election because a majority voted for Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who had supported state legislation that would have cracked down on unauthorized immigrants.

In 2008, Curbelo served as a Hispanic-issues advisor to presidential hopeful Fred Thompson, who said previous immigration reform had left the country “beset by people who are suicidal maniacs.” Curbelo distanced himself from Thompson’s policies last year, saying he’s responsible for only his own positions.

To critics, Curbelo says it’s Republicans like Rubio and Arizona Sen. John McCain who have stuck out their political necks, risking their presidential aspirations, to try to pass immigration reform, “whereas the Democrats have used the issue to play politics.”

“The key question is, are you willing to spend your political capital in order to get it done? I am,” he said. “And that means working to convince your colleagues, criticizing your party whenever it’s appropriate or necessary — and working with the other party when it makes sense.”

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