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The pressure's on California House GOP members to act on immigration

Republican Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Fresno) was the first Republican to sign on as co-sponsor of the Democratic immigration reform bill
Republican Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Fresno) was the first Republican to sign on as co-sponsor of the Democratic immigration reform bill
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Time is running out for the House of Representatives to vote on immigration reform this year. There are only about a dozen work days left in the 2013 calendar.

GOP members from California in particular are feeling the pressure — and some of it is coming from sources who are usually Republican allies.

Bibles, Badges, and Business

Republican members of Congress had quite a few visitors this week. More than 600 members of the so-called Bibles, Badges, and Business coalition descended on Capitol Hill to lobby for immigration reform.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims made the case to California Central Valley Congressmen Devin Nunes, David Valadao and Kevin McCarthy that immigration is a law enforcement issue. "Once we get some kind of system in place so that people can register to be guest workers or apply for citizenship, those who don't are going to attract attention," said Mims during an interview on the designated lobbying day. Those left in the shadows, she added, are more likely to be involved in criminal activity, "so that will really help us decide who we should be focusing on and who we shouldn't."

Tom Nassif, head of the Western Growers Association, made the pitch from the business point of view, talking about farm jobs — and related tax revenue — being lost because of a labor shortage in the fields. And Nassif brought other talking points to persuade the GOP: polling data from what he described as "very conservative Republican pollsters" that show that there's about 70% support from Democrats and Republicans alike for immigration reform. "I think those things help," he said.

Central Valley Republicans 

One California Republican who needed no persuading is Turlock Congressman Jeff Denham. Days before the lobbying effort, he became the first GOP member to co-sponsor the Democratic bill that adds amendments on border security and other matters to a Senate version of comprehensive reform. Denham said the issue is "personal" for him. "My job is to be a leader and I'm going to be a leader on this issue."

On Wednesday, another Central Valley Republican, David Valadao, also signed on as a co-sponsor. He and Denham have majority Latino populations in their districts, which have been targeted by immigration reform activists.

But California’s most powerful House Republican has been largely silent on how to pursue reform. Bakersfield Congressman Kevin McCarthy is the House Whip, the number three GOP in the House, the man in charge of nailing down floor votes.

Marc Sandalow, who teaches political science and media at the University of California’s D.C. Center, said McCarthy has "seen the future of American politics and it's in his district." McCarthy is in a safe Republican district, but surrounding Kern County is now half-Latino. For McCarthy, Sandalow said, "it’s probably good politics to go home and talk about immigration reform, his constituents are probably in favor of it. When he comes back to Washington, saying he’s in favor of the Democrat immigration plan is the surest way for him to lose his leadership powers in Washington."

Charles Kim, who teaches political science at Bakersfield College's Delano campus in the heart of the Central Valley, agrees that McCarthy is caught between a rock and a hard place. Even though McCarthy knows from his own district that immigration reform is something Congress needs to "fix," his party "has a different view on it." Kim said McCarthy is likely to follow an earlier GOP mantra that the border security is the most important thing to tackle first.

Republicans outside California's Central Valley

Few of McCarthy’s House colleagues around the country are in districts with large Latino populations.

But San Bernardino GOP Congressman Gary Miller represents a district that’s about half Latino and where Republicans are a minority of registered voters. Miller has been largely silent in recent months on the debate, and he removed anti-immigrant material from his website. Sandalow said that Inland Empire district includes voters who strongly support immigration reform — and some who might stay home on election day to show displeasure at a candidate who would reverse his earlier opposition. The margin of victory in next year’s race is likely to be 1-to-2 percent. "A thousand votes here, five thousand votes there," Sandalow said,  "it can make the difference between winning and losing the election."

GOP plans for immigration legislation

Tom Nassif of the Western Growers Association met with McCarthy and another key GOP Congressman this week. Nassif said the Congressmen want to tackle immigration reform before the end of the year, and are considering a proposal from Vista Representative Darrell Issa that would grant a six-year legal status window to weed out those who should not be in the country. But Nassif said McCarthy told him one thing is off the table: a pathway to citizenship. But Nassif said if there's a "pathway to legalization, that's certainly something that Whip McCarthy would support." McCarthy's office would neither confirm nor deny that conversation. 

Meanwhile, GOP Congressman Devin Nunes of Tulare insisted it's an argument over definitions.
Nunes said for those like him "who come from immigrant communities," people aren't demanding to have citizenship right now. "Most of the folks just want to be here legally and have a legal status."

That's not going to fly with House Democrats who insist a path to citizenship must be part of the equation. The challenge for McCarthy is to find enough Republican votes to pass some sort of immigration bill — and argue later about legalization vs. citizenship with Senate negotiators.