Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Democratic immigration reform bill gets a GOP co-sponsor, but obstacles remain

Martha Garcia and Rocio Verdugo cut school to attend an immigration rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.
Martha Garcia and Rocio Verdugo cut school to attend an immigration rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013.
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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A Republican offering to co-sponsor a House Democratic immigration reform bill is reviving hopes for an immigration overhaul this year, although obstacles aplenty remain. Rep. Jeff Denham of California  (R-Turlock) has signed on to H.R. 15, a bill introduced by Democrats in early October, just as the federal government shutdown began.

The bill includes basic elements of the comprehensive proposal approved by the Senate in June, with a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally,  but it does away with the costly “border surge” security provision that drew criticism from members of both major parties. That provision was replaced in the House bill with a stand-alone GOP border security plan, H.R. 1417, which favors extensive reporting and metrics to gauge border control, and sets a 90 percent apprehension rate along the southern border within 5 years.

The version of the bill that Denham is backing also incorporates his so-called ENLIST Act, which would let unauthorized immigrants join the military in exchange for legal status and an expedited path to citizenship. During a conference call with reporters on Monday, Denham said he was confident it would draw more GOP support.

“While I’m the first Republican to support this legislation, I expect others to sign on in the next few days,” Denham said.

Right now, he’s the lone Republican among 186 lawmakers who have signed on. Denham said the $46 billion Senate border security provision tacked on to that bill had been one of the barriers to House GOP support, but that with its elimination, “that issue has been fixed.” H.R. 1417, by contrast, was unanimously approved by the House Homeland Security Committee in May.

While many Republicans have preferred taking a piecemeal approach with multiple bills - including now Senate bill co-sponsor Marco Rubio – Denham hopes to bring H.R. 15 to a successful vote, then hash out a comprehensive deal in conference with the Senate.

The bill's lead Democratic sponsor, Rep. Joe Garcia of Florida, also expressed optimism Monday: "Clearly I would have probably liked it to be a little bit more liberal," he said during the phone conference, "but I don’t think that would have gotten the votes we need to get this through."

The development has encouraged immigrant rights advocates, who were still hoping Congress would act on reform by the end of the year. In an email, Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles wrote: “It raises our expectation that a bipartisan effort to pass immigration reform has now taken hold, and may soon prove to be too much for (House) Speaker (John) Boehner to keep a lid on. A vote must come soon.”

If anything, the House bill going technically bipartisan demonstrates that the Republican caucus isn’t necessarily in lockstep, said Louis DeSipio, a political scientist at UC Irvine.

“It's important that some of the more moderate members are willing to say so publicly and to cue the leadership that they are potentially paying an electoral price for Congressional inaction,” DeSipio wrote in an email.

Denham is one of those who could pay such a price: His Central Valley district is close to half Latino and almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. He's also one of 10 Republicans nationwide whose re-election bids have been targeted by pro-immigration reform Latino outreach efforts. In an interview with KPCC, Denham said, “We’ve certainly been getting a lot of phone calls not only from the district, but from around the nation. And you know, we’re going to listen to everybody. But at the end of the day – at the end of the year – we’ve got to have immigration reform.”

Republican House Speaker Boehner might now be pressured to bring some smaller immigration bills up for a vote, DeSipio said, but it’s still unlikely he’ll want to move a comprehensive bill that has mostly Democratic support.

Then there’s the too little, too late element. Even if more Republicans join Denham and sign on to H.R. 15, time is running out, said UC Riverside political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan.

“It's possible that a few more Republicans will lend their support in the form of co-sponsorship or indications that they would vote in favor, were it brought to the floor,” Ramakrishnan wrote. “But, the chances of the bill clearing the floor in 2013 still seem dim, especially given the limited legislative calendar and the logic of Republican primary elections.”

And with 2014 being an election year, Ramakrishnan said, it’s not likely there will be action on a sweeping immigration overhaul until after next year’s primary elections.