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2 California congressmen represent divide on immigration reform

Central Valley Rep. Jeff Denham says an immigration overhaul is important to California and the Republican Party. Fellow GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County flatly rejects the idea.

July 27, 2013|By Richard Simon
  • Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, right, of California’s Central Valley, is a staunch supporter of efforts to overhaul immigration law, putting him at odds with many of his GOP colleagues in the House.
Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, right, of California’s Central Valley,… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — Reps. Jeff Denham and Dana Rohrabacher are California GOP colleagues usually on the same side of issues — except immigration.

Denham, who represents District 10 in the Central Valley, supports legislation that would grant millions of immigrants legal status and says an overhaul of immigration laws is important to the state's economy and the Republican Party's future.

The issue is personal, too. He is married to the daughter of a legal Mexican immigrant. His sister married an immigrant who entered the country illegally but now has legal status.

"I witnessed the trials and the joys of immigration through my own family," he said at a Capitol Hill hearing last week, later speaking in Spanish.

Rohrabacher, of Orange County, flatly rejects what he considers "amnesty" for lawbreakers and contends that granting legal status to immigrants won't bring Latinos into the Republican fold, but will infuriate the GOP base.

"This idea that we're going to get all these Hispanic votes … that's just not going to happen," Rohrabacher said.

The sharp differences between the two underscore the difficulty of moving comprehensive immigration legislation through the GOP-controlled House. It also spotlights the wide-ranging views of the 15 Republicans from California, whose views have in part been shaped by factors such as their districts' demographic makeups and their own political vulnerabilities.

Immigrant rights groups have been working to gain the support of California Republicans because of the state's sizable Latino population and its growing political influence. California is home to about a fourth of the nation's estimated 11 million immigrants without legal status. Four of the state's GOP lawmakers represent districts where Latinos make up 40% or more of the population; five represent districts where it's at least 30%.

The Senate last month approved a landmark bill that would allow immigrants to gain legal status after 10 years and citizenship three years later. The measure calls for a $46-billion security buildup at the border and new guest-worker programs, including for agricultural workers. It also requires employers to verify the legal status of all new hires.

House Republicans are considering measures that would tighten border security, permit more agricultural and high-tech workers in the country temporarily and grant legal status to young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has pledged not to bring immigration legislation up for a vote unless it is backed by a majority of Republicans.

The views among the California Republicans run the gamut. Some vehemently oppose granting

legal status to anyone who entered the country illegally, or won't consider doing so until convinced that the border is secure.

"Until our current immigration laws are enforced, there's no reason to believe that future laws will be enforced," Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay) said.

Others are open to granting legal status to some immigrants but unsure about or opposed to providing a path to citizenship.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) said that if Congress were to strengthen border security and require a system for verifying workers' legal status, he would consider "some kind of legal status, though not citizenship" for immigrants in the country illegally if they meet conditions, such as paying back taxes and passing English proficiency tests.

Denham and Rohrabacher have often been on the same side of significant legislation. Both voted to repeal President Obama's healthcare law and expand offshore energy exploration.

Denham, a two-term representative who turns 46 on Monday, is perhaps best-known to Californians as a leading critic of the state's high-speed rail project. He represents a 40% Latino district that relies on immigrants to pick the crops. He survived a challenge from a Latino Democrat in a district won by Obama last year and has been targeted by Democrats again for defeat next year.

A recent survey by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found 44% of voters surveyed in Denham's district would be less likely to support him if he voted against immigration reform. Immigrant rights groups see him as a potentially important ally.

Denham has worked to court Latino voters, conducting "listening sessions" on immigration — and brought GOP colleagues from Florida and South Carolina to his district to hear his constituents' views on the issue. He says the Senate bill goes in the "right direction."

Denham was recently one of six House Republicans who opposed an effort to cut off funding for an Obama administration program that halted deportation of young immigrants who are in high school or college or have served in the military. And he is sponsoring legislation that would allow people in the country illegally to gain legal status through U.S. military service.

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