The chances of immigration reform passing this year are fast dimming. But in recent days, activist groups have been reaching out to California Congressman Kevin McCarthy, hoping his promotion to House Majority leader will turbo boost their cause.
In his new job, McCarthy will be responsible for which bills go to the floor for a vote. Some advocates are counting on the Bakersfield Republican to address the demands of his congressional district, one heavily dependent on immigrant farm labor.
But skeptics say McCarthy’s ascendancy to second-in-command will do little to break the gridlock over immigration within the GOP.
“The problem is in the core of the Republican caucus in the House,” said Louis DiSipio, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine. “They’ve been pretty intransigent since 2012 at considering any immigration reform bill and that continues even with the new leadership.”
Republicans have also grown warier of acting on immigration since outgoing majority leader Eric Cantor was walloped in his primary earlier this month, according to Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to limit immigration.
“Immigration wasn’t the only issue but it was certainly a central issue in (primary challenger) David Brat’s insurgent campaign against (Cantor),” Mehlman said. “The message was sent to a lot of other Republicans in the House.”
Another factor is shifting some of the attention away from Congress: the surge in the number of immigrant minors crossing into the US illegally without their parents. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been caught at the US-Mexico border since October.
Mehlman said it's a difficult time for Congress to take up immigration reform given that "there is no sign that the crisis is going to abate anytime soon."
But the Obama administration has said comprehensive reform is needed outside of any action it takes to address the border crisis. And immigrant rights groups insist that the votes are there if McCarthy and House leadership allow a bill to go before members.
"I guarantee you that we have enough Republicans willing to vote for immigration reform," said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota. "We have the majority of Democrats ready to vote for it."
By delaying a vote on reform, activists say the GOP alienates a rapidly-growing minority electorate and jeopardizes its future as a major party — something that even some Republican leaders acknowledge.
Monterroso noted McCarthy' district is 35 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian. It is also heavily agricultural.
“The growers and the business community in his district are asking him to do immigration reform,” Monterroso said.
McCarthy has said in the past that he’s open to extending legal status for some immigrants, if not citizenship. DiSipio said that McCarthy's district has given "him a more sensitive and nuanced view of the immigration experience than many of the other members of the Republican caucus who come from areas with low levels of immigration historically."
But Monterroso said McCarthy does not have much time to act. As the mid-term elections approach, politicians switch to campaign mode.
“If something is going to happen, it has to happen before the August recess," Monterroso said. “We need to see some strong signals within the next 10 days.”
Mi Familia Vota joined several other groups — including the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium and Labor Council of Latin American Citizens — in issuing a statement after McCarthy's election as majority leader calling on him to act on reform:
The new Majority Leader can either schedule a House floor vote on workable immigration reform or he can kill the best chance in decades to fix the immigration system and miss a big opportunity to work with Latino, AAPI, and immigrant communities.
McCarthy's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The White House kept an upbeat tone about the prospects for immigration reform getting passed out of Congress. Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said Friday that “We have an opportunity with a new team in place in the House to act."
Activists have said if Congress does nothing this session, the onus will be on Pres. Obama to use his executive power to stop deportations that they say are breaking up families.