On October 24, Jeff Flake stood up on the Senate floor to deliver a rousing tribute to true American values and a blistering condemnation of President Trump.
“[W]e must never adjust to the present coarseness of our national dialogue with the tone set up at the top,” announced Flake, a Republican senator from Arizona. “We must never regard as normal the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country. The personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms and institution, the flagrant disregard for truth and decency.”
The speech left many people across the country gape-mouthed and teary-eyed.
Some in Arizona’s immigrant rights community were less surprised. Carmen Cornejo, a longtime advocate for DREAMers, says Flake stands out from other Republicans on several policies, and “his moral compass is very different from Trump’s.”
Flake was one of the first politicians in Arizona to openly support an immigration reform bill. Early in the fight, he worked with activist groups including Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform as Congressman. He recognized businesspeople’s concerns that workplace raids and E-Verify were impositions on business owners and their loyal employees. As U.S. Sentator, Flake also encouraged the U.S. to establish good relations with Cuba – something few legislators valued – and he was harshly criticized for it, Cornejo says.
“I knew he would be a good ally,” says Cornejo, who is chair of Chicanos Por La Causa’s board of directors. “Even though he was not especially close to the Hispanic community, he understood a lot of the issues that affect us.”
In the pre-DACA years, many DREAMers were terrified of coming out of the shadows for fear of being deported. The only Republican politician Cornejo felt comfortable bringing DREAMers to speak to was Flake. He met with the DREAMers face-to-face. “He was curious, he was knowledgeable, he wanted to hear their voices and hear their stories,” Cornejo says. “To me, that speaks volumes about his character.”
Flake is certainly not a perfect candidate for the immigrant community. Many DREAMers and allies criticized his recent proposal for a DACA replacement since it included funding for border security. However, his bill offers a better path to citizenship for DREAMers than other recent Republican-proposed bills. And Flake’s bill is more likely to pass than some of the Democrats’ proposals. “I think [Flake] put forth a reasonable compromise in that situation,” Cornejo says.
If I have been critical, it is because I believe it is my obligation to do so… [A]s the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters, the notion that we should say or do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided. –Jeff Flake
In his speech, Flake said he will not run for reelection in 2018. This announcement elicited mixed responses from people on all sides of the political spectrum. Some feel that if he were really dedicated to the values he espoused, he would stay and try to change things. Others feel he is leaving because he believes he has no chance to win in 2018. Others praise his stance against the current administration but worry his departure opens the door for an extreme right-wing replacement like Kelli Ward.
“As an advocate for DREAMers, I feel kind of sad that he is not fighting for reelection,” Cornejo says. “We’re losing a person that at least listens and took the time to really understand the issues of the Hispanic community and the immigrant community.”
Will Flake’s searing speech make his DACA replacement bill and any future proposals too hot to touch? It’s too early to say. But with more and more conservatives speaking out against the radical Trump administration, statements like Flake’s may become the new normal.
Meanwhile, Cornejo hopes Flake will be as receptive to DREAMers as he was when she first took the young immigrants to meet the senator. “I hope one of the issues that he really pushes is his [DACA replacement] proposal or a similar proposal that is in tune with the original DREAM Act,” she says. “I’m really hopeful, and I would ask him again, as I have in the past, to have a heart for the DREAMers.”