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Immigration debate in DC worries some California Republicans

U.S, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican from California. (File photo)
U.S, Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican from California. (File photo)
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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As comprehensive immigration reform stalls in the U.S. House of Representatives, some Golden State Republicans back home are wringing their hands. They say the rhetoric they’re hearing from GOP Congressmen threatens an already floundering California Republican Party.

“I can’t believe that we’re in 2013, and we haven’t been able to address this issue,” said Downey Mayor Mario Guerra. “To me it’s very much a human issue, and I think the time is now to do something about it.”

Guerra, a lifelong Republican, supports providing a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrations – an estimated 2.6 million live in California. But the idea is anathema to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County.

“Its really an invitation for everybody in the world to come here and break our laws,” Rohrbacher said. “It makes no sense.”

Rohrabacher may be the most outspoken among California’s 15 Republicans in Congress, but fellow conservatives like Tom McClintock and Duncan Hunter express similar sentiments on immigration.

That irks Guerra, who is looking to move up the political ladder with a run for the state senate next year. He faces an uphill battle in a state where less than 30 percent of voters are registered Republican. GOP opposition to a path to citizenship hurts his chances even further, he argued.

“I think it’ll hurt if we don’t pass immigration reform because it looks very much like a partisan defeat,” said Guerra.

California Republicans are still seen by many Latinos – and Asian-Americans – as the party that pushed Proposition 187. That 1994 ballot initiative sought to deny social services, including public healthcare and education, to undocumented immigrants.

In an unusual move, Assemblyman Jeff Gorell of Ventura County traveled to Washington earlier this year to lobby fellow Republicans on immigration. Gorell’s spokesman, Douglas Lorenz, said his boss sees political opportunity in legalizing undocumented immigrants.

“There are a lot of Republicans that see the growing Hispanic community as a community that shares Republican values,” Lorenz said.

Its worth noting Gorell’s new assembly district now includes Oxnard, where 73 percent of the population is Latino. Lorenz said Latinos are no doubt paying attention to the immigration debate in Washington.

Some GOP representatives are seeking to soften the party’s approach to immigration.

Congressman Jeff Denhem of the Central Valley introduced an amendment that would allow undocumented immigrants brought to the country before they were 15 years old and who enlist in the military to be placed on an expedited path to citizenship.

“As a nation, we have never made citizenship a requirement for service in our armed forces,” Denham said on the House floor recently.

There’s good reason Denham and Congressman David Valadeo in another Central Valley district sound a different note on immigration.

“They both have very sizable Latino populations,” said former Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum. “And the national Democratic Party has targeted those two districts.”

Denham’s district is 40 percent Latino. Valadao’s is 70 percent.

But you can count on one hand the number of California GOP lawmakers who’ve said they would support citizenship – they include Denham, Valadao, Congressman Darrell Issa of San Diego and John Campbell of Orange County. And all have attached caveats or, in Campbell’s case, backed off their support.

Pressure to support a path to citizenship is also coming from Republicans’ traditional business allies. Last week, the California Chamber of Commerce urged GOP congressmen to support legislation already approved by the U.S. Senate.

“There’s no excuse for house members to pass on a golden opportunity for problem solving,” the chamber’s CEO Allan Zaremberg said in a videotaped message. “This is so important to California’s economy.”

In an interview ,Zaremberg was careful to avoid calling out Republicans specifically, but Democrats already support the Senate’s bill.  So the target of his message was clear.

“Step up to the podium, lead the discussion,” he said.

Rohrabacher remained unimpressed. “The California Chamber of Commerce is probably looking for cheap labor.”

The Orange County Republican also sees no political need for his party to support a path to citizenship. Rohrabacher argued Democrats will get the credit for any reform measure, and new citizens will flock to that party – not the GOP.

Hoffenblum, who co-authors a non-partisan analysis of California politics, said Rohrbacher can afford to hold his position because just 20 percent of his district is Latino.

“Dana Rohrbacher doesn’t have any Latinos in his Congressional District,” Hoffenblum.

But he also noted that there are fewer and fewer districts in the state that look like that.