Republican lawmakers from California’s San Joaquin Valley are now at the forefront of challenging party orthodoxy on immigration, a dissident position that brings both promise and peril.
On Thursday, doubling down at a party retreat, Rep. Jeff Denham kept the spotlight on sharp disagreements over immigration control. The move came one day after Denham joined fellow Valley Republican David Valadao and some others in the GOP in opposing strict immigration measures pushed by party leaders.
“I think it’s going to be a renewed debate,” Denham said in an interview Thursday. “It will give us an opportunity to come together on some good reforms.”
Denham’s enhanced prominence was on display at the congressional Republican retreat in Hershey, Pa., where reporters surrounded the third-term lawmaker as he revealed plans for a closed-door, “open mic” discussion of immigration later in the day and MSNBC snagged him for a morning show.
Representing largely agricultural districts with significant Hispanic populations, Denham and Valadao have previously carved out distinctive immigration positions. Last Congress, Denham drew national media attention when he became the first Republican in the House of Representatives to co-sponsor a comprehensive immigration-overhaul bill.
Valadao followed suit. The Californians noted they were being attentive to their districts, where immigration crackdowns hit home. About 41 percent of the residents in Denham’s Modesto-based district are Hispanic, while in Valadao’s Hanford-based district, 72 percent of the residents are.
Democratic challengers sought last year to cast the Valley Republicans’ support for immigration restructuring as either weak or politically expedient.
With Republicans now controlling both House and Senate, the comprehensive immigration package, which offered a pathway to citizenship or legal residency, seems a long shot. Instead, this year’s immigration debate will emphasize border control, enforcement and fighting the Obama administration’s executive actions.
“There has (first) got to be a tremendous amount of trust restored among the American people,” said Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “There is not trust among the American people in the enforcement of our immigration laws.”
The Republican majority’s priorities and the roles to be played by party dissidents were apparent Wednesday when the House took up a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security. As part of the $39.7 billion bill, lawmakers added an amendment to eliminate funding for Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The program defers the deportation of young immigrants who were brought to this country as children.
As of last March, 183,000 California residents had applied for the program and hundreds of thousands more might be eligible, according to a Migration Policy Institute study.
Twenty-six Republicans, including Denham and Valadao, voted against the amendment to stop the deferred action program. On Thursday, Denham said Obama’s executive actions had created a difficult atmosphere on Capitol Hill, but said his own party had erred on both politics and policy.
“I think that sends the wrong message to the American public on what our overall reform ideas are,” Denham said.
Hard-line immigration views, some polls suggest, do continue to undermine Republican efforts to attract Hispanic votes. A Pew Research Center poll last October found that Hispanic registered voters were twice as likely to support a Democratic congressional candidate than a Republican candidate.
On the other hand, Republicans must also remain wary of antagonizing a conservative base that’s capable of putting up a primary challenger.
Denham and Valadao also voted Wednesday against several other related immigration amendments. On one measure to undo some of Obama’s executive actions providing temporary relief from deportation for about 5 million immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, the Californians were among only seven GOP lawmakers in opposition. They were among 10 House Republicans to vote against the final bill, which passed by 236-191.
“There were a number of members who understood that it was a political drill and because it was politics they were going to support it,” Denham said Thursday.
Valadao said he was “extremely disappointed” in the “political games” being played by both parties.
“I agree that the president should work with Congress instead of governing through executive orders,” Valadao said in a statement Thursday, “but Congress has also failed to present legislation which secures our borders, identifies who is here, provides the labor force our economy depends on and keeps families together.”
Denham added that “the American public has given us a very small window to show some leadership, and this is one of those key issues that we’ve got to show leadership on.”