WASHINGTON—Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has pleaded with her Republican colleagues to consider an immigration proposal that doesn't stop at building a fence along the U.S. border.
But the Florida lawmaker said in an interview this week that neither emotional appeals nor statistics about the perils the GOP may face by seemingly rebuffing Hispanics— the fastest growing bloc of U.S. voters—has convinced House of Representatives members that embracing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants would be anything but political suicide.
"The future electoral landscape is of little to no concern to our members," Ros-Lehtinen said of her fellow Republicans. "They're not worried about manana (tomorrow). It's all about hoy (today)."
Even if the Senate manages to revive its immigration bill, the difficulty the chamber displayed this week in reaching a compromise is likely to be dwarfed by the resistance from the House, where conservative Republicans—along with some newly elected Democrats from Republican-leaning districts—strongly resist earned legalization.
They include Rep. Kenny Marchant, a freshman Republican from Texas whose district includes Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb that voted to prevent illegal immigrants from renting apartments.
"There wouldn't be enough Hispanics to save me if I voted for amnesty," Marchant said, acknowledging that his district has experienced a rapid growth in immigrants. By one measure there are an estimated 32,000—more than the margin of victory in his 2006 House race—who could be eligible by 2008 to become citizens and register to vote. "My district is, 'Build a fence, enforce the law.'"
And, Marchant said, that's who he hears from: angry constituents who blame illegal immigrants for school overcrowding, rising health care costs and crime.
He said his Hispanic constituents are less likely to be politically involved.
"I can show you 1,000 letters," he said. "Ten wouldn't be from Hispanic households."
The We Are America Alliance, a pro-immigration advocacy group, estimates that there are about 7.5 million legal permanent residents eligible to become U.S. citizens in the 22 states with the most immigrants, including Arizona, California, Florida, Texas and North Carolina. They argue that politicians need to start recognizing those potential voters.
Some political analysts suggest that many of those potential new voters will register as Democrats, but Republicans have stepped up their efforts to woo Hispanics in recent years, and they warn that the immigration debate could set those efforts back.
Ros-Lehtinen said she's met with Republican colleagues one on one, in small meetings and mini-conferences, and brought up the future political landscape.
"I've said, 'Look at the demographics,'" she said. "It's of no concern. I guess you can't accuse them of pandering."
Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican who appeared with a faux fence at a Capitol news conference last week to oppose the Senate legislation, said he's not convinced Republicans would be punished for blocking the legislation because legal immigrants don't necessarily support legalization for those here illegally.
"A lot of folks said to me they went through the legal process, they waited in the queue and it's unfair to them to have people circumvent the rules," said Royce, who argues that the U.S. economy can't absorb an influx of immigrants. He says he worries that aging immigrants strain an already groaning retirement system.
"We don't have the capacity to take on that kind of expense," Royce said. "What troubles me most is the cost."
The Senate bill, Royce argued, would be a "thousand times more expensive" than enforcing existing laws and finishing a wall across the border.
That's the approach favored by Rep. Thelma Drake, a Virginia Republican who noted that her mother was a naturalized citizen. She says she's heard—and rejected— the argument that new immigrants are more likely to be Democrats or will spurn "enforcement-first" Republicans.
"People who came here legally work hard. ... I'm comfortable they're going to make their public policy decisions on who best represents them," Drake said.
Resistance in the House is nearly as fierce among a band of Democrats who were elected by slim margins in traditionally Republican districts back in November.
Rep. Nancy Boyda, a Kansas Democrat, told a Capitol Hill newspaper this week that her constituents are "furious" at the Senate bill. She doesn't believe House Democratic leaders are "ready for the backlash on this."
Indeed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she won't take up the bill unless Republicans can promise her more than 50 votes—to make up for some Democrats who'll vote against the bill.
"The Senate immigration bill was a deeply, deeply flawed proposal, and I'm glad it has finally landed in the political graveyard," Boyda said Friday. "I hope that, now, senators and representatives will draft a new bill that reflects the national consensus on illegal immigration: that America needs enforcement, not amnesty."