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With new ad, Miami Democrat puts pressure on Republican Carlos Curbelo on immigration

A Democrat is turning the heat on a moderate Republican congressman fighting to keep his seat in the diverse district that voted for Clinton in 2016.
by Stephen A. Nuño /
Image: The downtown Miami skyline and Biscayne Bay
The downtown Miami skyline and Biscayne Bay Erik S, Lesser / EPA

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is running to be the Democratic representative in the August 28th primary to challenge GOP congressman Carlos Curbelo in a hotly contested Miami congressional district that experts are calling a toss-up. With a new online ad, she's targeting a topic that hits at the issue vexing Republican moderates like Curbelo — passing immigration reform despite the Trump administration's hardline stance.

The Democratic hopeful released an online ad Friday in which she tells the camera, "As an immigrant and as a Latina, I won't rest until we have immigration reform that protects all immigrants."

Mucarsel-Powell, who is not widely known, is running against fellow Democrat, Demetries Grimes in the August primary. She came from Ecuador as a young girl and worked her way through graduate school, ultimately working for two decades in non-profit work.

The Latina Democrat released the ad amid renewed attention to the Trump administration immigration policies, particularly the outcry over the policy separating children from their parents after the families have crossed the U.S. border.

Curbelo is among a group of House Republicans who are working to pass legislation that aims to halt the family separations and offer protections for Dreamers — undocumented young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — while putting in for billions more in border protection.

But it's uncertain whether Congress and ultimately President Trump will support the legislation.

Curbelo finds himself in an increasingly tenuous position if immigration reform continues to fail in Congress. His district voted him into office by a comfortable margin, 53 percent to 41 percent, but his district also voted for Hillary Clinton by 16 points, a clear sign that while Republicans in Curbelo's district preferred a Republican, they didn't want a Trump-style Republican.

A poll conducted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) says that if Mucarsel-Powell won the primary, she would be within striking distance of Curbelo, despite not being widely known.

In a statement released by the Mucarsel-Powell campaign, she tied her own experiences with immigration to her commitment to making progress for other immigrants. “As an immigrant, I know exactly what it feels like to be let down by Washington politicians,” said Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, appealing to a diverse electorate in Florida that includes Latinos from different countries.

Mucarsel-Powell presents an image of the immigrant "American Dream" that resonates with South Florida Latino voters, in contrast to the image presented by Trump's emphasis on immigration enforcement and street gangs such as MS-13. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran ran an ad earlier this year depicting an immigrant in a "hoodie" preying on a young, red-haired woman walking through her neighborhood. The ad provoked an uproar among immigrant rights advocates who said the ad was racist.

With the midterm elections moving closer, Republicans are increasingly faced with a decision to support Donald Trump or to reject him. So far, the President has boasted about losses and resignations by moderate Republicans who criticized him publicly. Famously, the President attacked his critics through Twitter, such as Arizona's Jeff Flake, Tennessee's Bob Corker, and others. Senator Sanford of South Carolina attracted the ire of the President just before his loss in the South Carolina primary, an indicator that the Congressional elections will become a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency.

Democrats have turned up the heat in Curbelo's district and his response has been to force his fellow Republicans' hand on immigration reform, reminiscent of the same tactic that the Senator from his state, Marco Rubio, took by joining the "Gang of 8" with 7 other Republicans and Democrats who tried to find a compromise within their respective parties.

However, that strategy didn't work out as well as Senator Rubio had hoped, and it later came to haunt him in the Republican primary election in 2016, where Donald Trump and others were able to point to the failure of immigration reform as either an indicator of Rubio's inability to get the job done, or an indicator of his lack of commitment to a strong, hardline stance on immigration that appeals to many in the Republican base.

Recently, Mucarsel-Powell visited the Krome Processing Center in Miami-Dade County and spoke to several detained immigrants, vowing to not take money from private prison groups that house immigrant detainees.

Gregory Koger, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, says that Mucarsel-Powell's low profile will force Curbelo to run on the merits of his own record.

"She has a clean record. She is a highly confident female Democrat with no skeletons to criticize," said Koger. "Curbelo can’t run a negative campaign against his opponent."

With the country focused once again on the issue of immigration, Koger says that Curbelo's embrace of the issue will be an important mark of how constituents evaluate his success in office. If the current attempt to achieve immigration legislation fails, Curbelo will be facing questions in the more politically moderate district. "His inability to get a vote on a clean DACA bill is really going to hurt him," said Koger.

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