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Border separation controversy splitting N.H. Republicans, energizing state Democrats

  • Akemi Vargas, 8, cries as she talks about being separated from her father during an immigration family separation protest in front of the Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. District Court building in Phoenix on Monday, June 18, 2018. AP



For the Monitor
Wednesday, June 20, 2018

New Hampshire is more than 2,000 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, but the impact of the controversial move by President Donald Trump’s administration to separate families trying to cross the border is being felt in the Granite State.

“Distance does not make the heart grow fonder of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents,” New England College political science professor Wayne Lesperance said. “Granite Staters, like their counterparts across the country, are treated daily to heart-wrenching images of crying children being pulled from their mothers’ arms on the southern border.”

The president reversed course Wednesday afternoon, signing an executive order that he said keeps “families together while ensuring we have a powerful border.” Trump had previously stated that he had no authority to stop the separation of children from their parents.

But the move by the president – an aggressive enforcement of his “zero-tolerance” policy that separated more than 2,300 minors from their families in just over a month, according to the Department of Homeland Security – once again put New Hampshire’s Republican governor in an uncomfortable political situation.

Gov. Chris Sununu – a Trump supporter – on Tuesday joined a growing bipartisan list of governors who pushed back against the president’s border policy. There’s been no federal request for New Hampshire National Guard troops to deploy to the southern border. But in a symbolic gesture, Sununu pledged to withhold sending any troops.

“The New Hampshire National Guard has not been contacted, and I will not send our New Hampshire troops to the southern border to separate families,” the governor said in a statement sent to the Monitor.

Lesperance noted that “politically, those images and the president’s policy put Republicans in the very difficult position of supporting an unpopular policy or breaking with President Trump.”

Sununu’s announcement earned the scorn of Republican state Rep. Al Baldasaro of Londonderry.

“Governor Sununu is wrong,” said the outspoken conservative lawmaker, who was a top state supporter of Trump’s 2016 campaign for president, when asked about the governor’s announcement not to send National Guard troops to the southern border.

Baldasaro suggested that the governor “needs to focus on New Hampshire and not worry about the illegals crossing the border.”

And he said that criticism of the president’s immigration policy “is a way for the Trump haters to go after Trump.”

Baldasaro also said changes at the border should come from Capitol Hill.

“Republicans and Democrats (in Congress) need to get their heads out of their butts and pass a law and fix it,” Baldasaro said.

Former state House majority leader Jack Flanagan, who’s running this year to return to the House, was a bit more measured.

“In the United States of America, if you’re arrested, you are separated from your children,” Flanagan pointed out.

But he, too, looked to Congress for a solution.

“We do need a more orderly process as it relates to immigration, and I think a holistic approach needs to be looked at by Congress,” he said.

Veteran GOP strategist Dave Carney said that “Republicans, as everyone should be, are horrified at seeing what’s going on down there, but these are the unintended consequences of a horrible immigration system.”

Republican Tom Rath, prior to Wednesday’s executive order, criticized Trump’s policy and applauded the governor’s announcement.

“I think he’s correct in doing what he did,” said the former state attorney general and longtime GOP consultant, who was a senior adviser on Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“This is not a state that’s going to take well to this policy by Trump,” Rath explained. “We are a state of immigrants. We are a state that has welcomed immigrants over the years. We want to let them in legally, but you don’t break families up. You don’t use children as pawns.”

The division among Granite State Republicans appears to be reflected in national polling. While there are no recent public opinion surveys in New Hampshire, a national poll by CBS News conducted this past weekend suggested that Republicans were divided on the Trump administration policy to separate the children of those caught illegally crossing the border from their parents.

The same survey indicated that two-thirds of independents and 90 percent of Democrats called the policy “unacceptable.”

The two Democrats running this year to replace Sununu as governor were quick to criticize him and highlight his close relationship with the president.

“You don’t use separation of families as a bargaining chip. Wrong is wrong,” former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand wrote on Twitter.

And he criticized Sununu, saying “no governor in America spends more time worrying about how to stay on Donald Trump’s good side than (Sununu).”

The other Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former state senator Molly Kelly of Harrisville, said she’s “sickened by the fact that children are being taken from their parents, crying children.”

“It breaks my heart. It’s unacceptable,” she said.

And she criticized last weekend’s U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint along Interstate 93 in Plymouth, the second such checkpoint in New Hampshire in recent weeks.

“We had the Trump border patrol on Route 93 in Plymouth on Father’s Day doing checkpoints. I would not be silent as our governor is,” Kelly said. “I would stand up to Donald Trump and say we do not need deportation officers here in our state doing checkpoints here in New Hampshire, especially in a town that’s not close to the border.”

Highlighting that he has “consistently opposed the child separation policy,” Sununu said on Wednesday that he was “pleased the president’s executive order will end it.”

The controversy over the family separations comes less than five months before November’s midterm elections.

Baldasaro said he thinks the episode will fire up Trump’s populist base.

“He’s following through on his promises. That’s what he’s doing,” Baldasaro said.

But New Hampshire Young Democrats President Lucas Meyer said the controversy at the southern border and the checkpoints in New Hampshire – which he called “disturbing” – will energize young progressive voters.

“People heading up to the Whites to hike shouldn’t be concerned about having ‘their papers,’ ” Meyer said. “Young voters won’t tolerate this direction toward a police state, and we will let our voices be heard come the fall by electing progressive leaders who will fight back against these heinous attacks against compassion and the respect for basic human dignity.”