California businesses pushing GOP lawmakers to back immigration overhaul

Curtis Tate

As a comprehensive immigration overhaul appears stuck, for the moment, in the House of Representatives, an influential coalition is betting that members of Congress from California can break the logjam.

Prominent Republicans and their traditional allies in the business community frame an immigration overhaul as both crucial to the economy and the long-term prospects of the party. And they are waging an educational campaign to encourage California lawmakers to lead the way.

“It’s an issue that attracts a lot of emotions, and we want to make sure people have the facts,” said California Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Allan Zaremberg.

Last week, CalChamber began a public push for a House vote on a bipartisan bill the Senate approved last month. And because Republicans are in the majority, CalChamber’s effort is focused on the state’s 15 GOP lawmakers in the House.

Zaremberg said that there’s “no question that Republicans are a target” of the chamber’s efforts.

“They have the opportunity to have a great deal of influence,” he said. “If you’re a Republican and you care about jobs and the economy, it’s important for you to understand the consequences.”

The Senate last month approved a bipartisan bill that would increase funding for border security, create a guest-worker program and establish a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally. But when, and how, the effort moves forward depends on the House Republicans, where there is considerably more resistance.

“Some people might not see immediate impact in their district,” said Ruben Barrales, a former aide to President George W. Bush who’s working to attract more Latino voters to the Republican Party. “I hope they’ll understand the bigger picture.”

The 38 House Democrats from California are largely united on immigration, but Republicans are all over the map.

At one end of the spectrum, Central Valley Republican Reps. Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Devin Nunes represent districts with large percentages of Latino voters, as well as an agricultural economy that depends on migrant workers. They’ve been more receptive to an immigration bill along the lines of what the Senate approved.

At the other end, hardliners such as Reps. Tom McClintock, Dana Rohrabacher and Duncan Hunter have shown little willingness to budge. They’ve consistently opposed what they call “amnesty” for people who broke the law.

Some Republicans, such as Reps. Gary Miller and Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, appear to be on the fence.

“I appreciate that people have policy differences,” Barrales said. “We need to set the right policy.”

California is home to nearly a quarter of the 11 million people living without documentation in the country.

CalChamber and more than 40 local chambers of commerce wrote in a letter to members of Congress last week that resolving the immigration status of 2.6 million California residents would unlock billions of dollars of consumer spending and investment and help the state recover from the lingering effects of the recession.

Zaremberg said that the state needs the right combination of high-skilled and low-skilled workers for its economy to flourish, and that a comprehensive immigration overhaul would help that happen.

“It’s more significant to California’s economy than darn near any other state,” he said.

The U.S. Chamber also supports the approach, as do many conservative leaders, from former President George W. Bush to small-government advocate Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

“All these people recognize this is a serious moment of consciousness for the party,” said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, an associate professor in the Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Hinojosa-Ojeda and other observers say acting on immigration is key to the future of Republicans in a state where the number of registered Latino and Asian American voters increases with every election, and in a country that’s beginning to look a lot like California.

California is a cautionary tale for Republicans on immigration. Almost two decades ago, the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 187, which sought to limit educational, health care and public safety benefits to anyone living in the state illegally, including children.

“Forever after, it had a huge impact on California politics,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, an independent, nonpartisan group that measures public opinion in California.

The payoffs for Republicans proved short-lived. The law was declared unconstitutional by a federal court. Then, the state’s demographics changed, with Latino voters more than doubling their share of the electorate. Democrats now dominate every statewide office, with large majorities in the state legislature and the U.S. Senate and House.

“They’ve been in the wilderness for quite a while,” Hinojosa-Ojeda said of Republicans. “They know it.”

Matt Barreto, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, Seattle, and a founding member of Latino Decisions, an opinion research group, said if Republicans want to be competitive in California again, they have to appeal to Latinos. But first, he said, they have to get immigration right.

“It doesn’t have to be the only issue that Latinos care about forever,” he said.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said that the House would not vote on any immigration measure that didn’t have the support of the majority of Republicans.

Barreto doubts enough House Republicans would support a path to citizenship. But as long as the chamber and other groups keep up the pressure, it could sway just enough reluctant lawmakers to tip the scales.

“Once a couple of them do, it’s going to give cover to others,” Barreto said. “You’ll see a domino effect. Politicians are most likely to listen to allies and supporters.”

By Curtis Tate
McClatchy Washington Bureau