President Obama called Republican Senators this week to talk about immigration reform. The House is content to wait until the Senate acts, but the President – and immigration activists – may want to call on California GOP members who are sounding more open to immigration reform than any time in the recent past.
It’s a different conversation about immigration these days among most Republican members of Congress from California.
GOP Congressmen John Campbell of Irvine calls the current immigration system "broken." Jeff Denham of Turlock says we "really have to address the issue" of the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. today. And Darrell Issa of Vista says we "have to consider" citizenship for those who "are capable of meeting all the responsibilities."
Citizenship has been the line-in-the-sand Democrats have drawn on immigration reform. In the past, some moderates in the GOP embraced legalization for undocumented residents. But many on the right labeled any kind of legal status as “amnesty.” However, more Republicans are now bowing to political realities after Latinos overwhelmingly voted for Democrats in November.
In an immigration speech in Las Vegas last month, President Obama said comprehensive immigration reform must include a pathway to citizenship. GOP Congressman Devin Nunes of Fresno agrees, saying he has no problem with what the President said in his speech.
Congressman John Campbell says there should be a path to citizenship – for some. He says there's a difference between people who came here illegally and their children: "I think that’s a distinction which is credible."
Freshman Republican David Valadao of the Central Valley is the child of Portuguese immigrants. He estimates about half the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have visa issues, stuck for years in the immigration bureaucracy.
"The other half, we’re going to have to figure out the way to make that work," Valadao says. "Those causing problems and making trouble, we’re going to have to find a way to make sure we get rid of them."
For those working and "trying to do good for their family," he says, "we have to a find a way to make sure that we give them the opportunity to have the American dream just like my parents did."
Though his parents became citizens, Valadao stops short of endorsing citizenship, saying the undocumented should earn “some kind of status” that allows them to work, educate their children, and pay taxes.
Fellow freshman Doug LaMalfa of Redding also stops short of committing to citizenship. He says it’s about fairness – not just to immigrants, but to Californians competing for scholarships and space in college classrooms. But LaMalfa says he’s interested in the “ongoing discussion” to find ways to "work this out in one fashion or another."
Congressman Darrell Issa – the only California GOP member on the House Judiciary Committee – fully supports citizenship.
"I don’t want people to be in this country permanently unless they have an opportunity to be full citizens," he says. "I believe that that’s inherently the American thing to do."
But not every California Republican has jumped on the immigration reform bandwagon.
Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach says he can't accept any legislation that normalizes the status of people who are here illegally. He says granting legal status encourages more people to cross the border. His solution: make worker verification mandatory.
"I don’t believe in deportation raids or trying to put people into trucks and driving them to the border," Rohrabacher says. "But if we just very humanely say, 'I’m sorry, you can’t take this job because you’re here illegally and that job should go to an American or a legal immigrant,' then they will go home eventually. And that’s the more humane way to do it."
Rohrabacher is a minority, at least among California Republicans.
Hardliner Elton Gallegly retired and Brian Bilbray – another fan of self-deportation – was defeated in the November election. The state’s GOP delegation shrank from 19 to 15. And California’s growing Latino voting population is flexing its political muscle. Some say the more moderate stance on immigration is the California GOP reacting to a demographic shift, years ahead of the rest of the party.
Issa is pragmatic. He says doing "what's right" will be appreciated by people "throughout the spectrum." Good policy, he says, makes good politics in the long run good.
"Right now we have a broken system, that’s bad policy," Issa said.
But California isn’t like the rest of the country. The House of Representatives still has plenty of hardliners unwilling to vote for any immigration bill that includes citizenship. And as the number of California Republicans shrinks, the state’s clout in the GOP-led House on immigration and other issues shrinks as well.
An earlier version of this story misidentified Jeff Denham's district.