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Congressional GOP Divided Over Immigration, Some Willing To Work With Democrats


House Republicans in Washington are worried about highlighting the split in the party over immigration. They're on the verge of voting next month on immigration bills. GOP leaders worry a public debate on the issue could boost Democrats' chances of winning the House in November. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports from California on one Republican who says defying President Trump and his own party leaders on immigration is good politics back home.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: California Republican Steve Knight is tired of waiting for House Republican leaders to figure out where their party should stand on immigration. He says voters in his district north of Los Angeles have been clear. They want Congress to act now.

STEVE KNIGHT: People have said that consistently. If I just don't listen, then I'm not listening to the people in my district.

SNELL: Until recently, Knight was pretty anonymous in Washington. But that was before he decided to defy party leaders and President Trump on immigration. Now he's one of almost two dozen Republicans who decided to team up with Democrats to force the House to vote on immigration proposals, proposals that include a pathway to citizenship that many in his party hate. He's willing to risk angering party leaders in part because he represents one of the 23 districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but voted for a Republican for Congress.

Democrats believe Republicans are unpopular across the country and in particular here in part because of issues like immigration. But Trump is leaning into the same tough immigration line that was his signature in 2016. He told a crowd in Tennessee last night that Republicans need to be tough on immigration if they want to win.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And you can say what you want, but I think border security and security general is a great issue for the Republican Party. I think it's a great issue, not a bad issue.

SNELL: Moderates and Democrats say a majority of Americans oppose a border wall. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll showed that 86 percent of voters support the DACA program. It protects immigrants who came to the country as children and are now here illegally. Here in California, the issue is even more personal because the state is home to nearly 30 percent of those DACA recipients. But Democrats here can't figure out the right way to campaign against a Republican like Knight.

Bryan Caforio is the most progressive of the Democrats running here. And he says Knight's rogue move signing the immigration petition won't be enough to set him apart.

BRYAN CAFORIO: That's a huge issue. And frankly, I don't think Steve Knight's doing anything on this.

SNELL: Caforio knocked on doors this weekend in a heavily Hispanic area of the high desert city of Palmdale. He's hoping that his personal touch and progressive politics like a pathway to citizenship without compromises will help bring Democrats to the polls. His opponent Katie Hill takes a much more moderate approach. She's in line with party leaders in Washington who want to trade some border security money for DACA protections. And she argues it's the right way to win votes in moderate suburban districts like this.

KATIE HILL: We are going to have to make sure that we've got the best possible chance at defeating him in the fall.

SNELL: But Knight says he isn't worried about facing either one of them in November. Knight knows immigration is a tough issue for Republicans, but he says it's not for him. Plus, he says voters here have a lot more on their minds than just immigration.

KNIGHT: We got into Congress to work on the military, veterans and small business. That's what we've done. They know that, the veterans know that. We've kept our word.

SNELL: Bert Brionies, a Democrat here, agrees. He says he respects that Knight took his own route on immigration, plus he likes Knight's work on local issues. Briones knows that Democrats need to defeat Republicans like Knight to win control of the house, but he trusts his congressman and he's planning to vote for him in November.

BERT BRIONIES: I'd like to, you know, stay with the Democrats' base, but if I see someone has, you know, ideas that would favor, you know, my way of thinking, then, yeah, I would sway towards that.

SNELL: Knight's split on immigration may infuriate Republican leaders, but it could be the key to helping the GOP keep the majority. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Santa Clarita, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.