Thursday, July 4, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Sen. Harry Reid may be the former boxer in Nevada’s congressional delegation, but it is Rep. Joe Heck who's been floating like a butterfly the past few days.
With the Senate passing sweeping immigration reform legislation June 27, the fight has shifted to a new ring, the House of Representatives. Heck, who returned home this week and conducted several meetings with constituents, has the tough task of representing a diverse district on a divisive issue.
At a town hall meeting Tuesday evening at the Windmill Library and a breakfast meeting Wednesday morning with the Hispanic in Politics organization, the question on everyone’s minds was: Where does Heck stand on immigration reform?
And here’s where Heck had to employ Muhammad Ali’s deft techniques.
Heck’s response in a nutshell: He is in favor of reforming the immigration system and including a pathway to citizenship, but he would not support the bill that passed the Senate.
He also said he is dedicated to tackling immigration reform this year, while acknowledging the difficulty of hashing out an agreement on an issue that elicits strong emotions on each side.
“I don’t think there is any one issue right now that is being debated in Washington that has stirred up so much passion, and that’s why we’ve got to get it done this year while everyone is so passionate about it,” he said. “If it’s delayed, people get demoralized and the passion starts to fade away.”
The issue, and how Heck ultimately comes down on it, could have sweeping ramifications in one of the most competitive congressional races in the country.
Heck, a second-term congressman, represents a district that is almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
In a reflection of that split district, the town hall crowd Tuesday was divided, and while delivering opening statements, Heck was alternately cheered or jeered by the same people from sentence to sentence.
Heck walked a fine line of endorsing reform but not the Senate bill, and he did not waffle in the face of the strongly opinionated and divided room. Numerous times he agreed to “respectfully disagree” with audience members.
The Republican congressman represents Nevada’s 3rd District, which encompasses Henderson, Boulder City, much of unincorporated Clark County and extends to the southern tip of the state. According to the latest district figures, there are 135,798 Democrats, 126,165 Republicans and 66,129 voters who claim no party affiliation.
On Monday, Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a nonprofit consultant and Democratic committeewoman, announced she would run in the district in 2014.
While political observers are watching Heck’s vote on immigration closely for its ramifications on next year’s race, he said he is trying to represent his constituents as best he can.
“Everybody is elected to represent the district that they come from,” Heck said. “They don’t have this issue if they have a small Latino population. It’s not something that’s big on their radar screen, and they are going to represent their district the way it’s configured. I’ll represent my district the way it’s configured and, like we said inside, it’s almost an equal population of Latino and Asian community. I have a big immigrant population, almost 30 percent of my district is either Latino or Asian, and this is a big issue to them.”
Heck on immigration
At the town hall, Heck said he would not have voted for the Senate legislation that passed last week. However, he was in favor of immigration reform with a few changes to what came out of the Senate.
He also endorsed the strategy of the House producing several bills to address the range of immigration issues tackled in the Senate legislation.
“There are some good things in it and there’re some bad things in it,” he told the audience. “I think there are things in there that can serve as a framework for some of the House bills, and there are some things in there that we definitely have to address that aren’t in the best interest of where we are trying to go.”
For example, Heck took issue with a clause that calls for 90 percent efficiency in border security before those immigrants who earn a provisional status can move on to permanent residency. He said it would be impossible to measure border security efficiency, and it would be better to simply look at year-over-year border apprehensions and turn-backs.
Also, after 10 years, the secretary of Homeland Security can waive the implementation of some of the border security provisions in the legislation, and Heck wants to remove the “off ramp,” making the initiatives mandatory.
Finally, he objected to a youth job-training program in the bill, saying it doesn’t belong in immigration legislation.
Many at the meeting, however, weren’t in the mood for such a refined position. They wanted to hear blanket opposition.
“You said our immigration system is broken,” participant Rita Bonilla said. “Now, I can tell you as an American of Mexican ancestry, fluent in Spanish, that lived through the 1986 amnesty, that our immigration system is not broken. It is the lack of enforcement. You’ve got to stop this. This is the nail in the coffin for this country.”
After the meeting, Heck talked with reporters about birthright citizenship. He said he welcomed debate on the topic but had not yet decided if the law should be changed.
“We are one of two developed countries that offer birthright citizenship,” he said. “I think that if we go through the process of providing a pathway to citizenship and have border security … well, then I think the debate needs to be had on whether or not Title 8 of the U.S. Code, where anybody born here is automatically a citizen, is a valid law. I think the debate should be had. If someone happens to be here on vacation, and they deliver their baby while they are here on vacation, should that baby be an automatic U.S. citizen? I don’t know.”
Before the Hispanics in Politics meeting, Dulce Valencia, a 17-year-old immigrant without legal residency, urged Heck to support reform legislation. Valencia’s mother is also in the country illegally, but her two siblings are U.S. citizens. Dulce Valencia did not qualify for deferred action because she had not been in the country for 5 years continuously.
“I really had a negative view of him before today. Hearing him speak, now I understand where he’s at. I understand his position way better right now. I understand that he truly is working for a pathway to citizenship,” she said of Heck.
Numerous times during the Hispanics in Politics meeting, Heck said the immigration reform debate should be about “people and policy” and not politics. But, escaping the politics of the issue is no easy task.
Feeling the squeeze
Polling on immigration reform is fairly conclusive: A majority in the country supports the Senate’s comprehensive approach.
Heck is conscious of the gap between public opinion and his party’s position. You can hear it in his comments — he never speaks about border security without tipping his hat to the merits of a pathway to citizenship, at least for undocumented youngsters who have come to be known as Dreamers.
But Heck’s struggle with immigration reform doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
“The strategy for Republicans is to try to get as far-right a bill as they can through the House, knowing it’ll be conferenced,” said UNLV political scientist David Damore, referring to the process by which the House and Senate resolve differences on legislation. “But at the same time, they’re going to force Joe Heck to vote on what will be seen as an outside-the-mainstream position on immigration that Democrats will use against him.”
Even if the House gets around to voting on a compromise on immigration reform, it likely won’t be before members first work through a series of pro-enforcement bills — such as last month’s vote to defund the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, in which Heck voted along with his party.
“That was a stupid vote,” Damore said. “I don’t know who’s advising him on that, or if it was pressure to hang in on this kind of thing. Maybe he just took one for the team so he gets a pass later on in the process.”
That vote on deferred action was raised at the Hispanics in Politics meeting.
The program, instituted by President Barack Obama in June 2012, provides temporary work permits for young immigrants. Heck has stated that he supported legislation that would provide a legal status for young immigrants who complete four years of military service or get a degree or some sort of job-training certification.
Heck said his vote “had nothing to do with my position on the Dreamers, because that position has been well stated. It’s been out there. (The vote) was saying the way to get this done is to actually get it done, and not use executive action to circumvent Congress to try and score political points,” Heck said.
But Democrats aren’t giving Heck much room for explaining nuance. Heck is one of a small set of Republicans whose seats stand between Democrats and their aspiration to gain a House majority in 2014 — and one of the few districts where immigration looks like a good sales pitch to the local electorate.
“Heck is a unique Republican in the sense that his district is both marginal and substantially Hispanic,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House dynamics and elections for the Cook Political Report.
“Joe Heck is one of the only Republicans in the House that Democrats can put into a squeeze,” Wasserman added.
In recent years, Heck’s district also has become both whiter and tighter, politically speaking: Redistricting gave Nevada’s 3rd District almost a 10 percent boost in white voters — and Obama, who carried the district by 10 points in 2008, could only scratch out a 1 percent victory against Mitt Romney there in 2012.
But experts caution against assuming an immigration backlash is limited to the Latino electorate.
“We’re not talking about a large segment of the electorate here. But I don’t think that immigration is just about the Latino vote,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. “Republicans have an image problem, and I think the immigration issue could help Republicans with their image problem, or continue to hurt Republicans with their image problem.”
As a party, Republicans have taken an “enforcement first” stance on immigration reform that often translates to the general public as an “enforcement only.”
“The House is really the choke point for immigration reform: The more the House is seen as an obstructionist body, the better Democratic candidates can do at all levels,” Wasserman said.
The stakes for Heck aren’t so much what he stands to gain from a voting record that reflects the principles of comprehensive reform as what he stands to lose if he doesn’t.
“The punishment’s much bigger than the reward,” Damore said. “If this goes down in flames, everybody’s going to point their fingers at the House Republicans.”
The path forward
The next steps for immigration reform, as the spotlight moves to the House of Representatives, still aren’t clear: The House has a few bills addressing border security, employer verification and high-skilled worker visas ready for votes, but nothing resembling a pathway to citizenship or legalized status has yet been introduced — and a once-promising bipartisan process to produce a comprehensive option has all but failed.
There are also only four weeks before Congress disbands for a break that will keep members out of Washington, D.C., until after Labor Day.
Still, November 2014 is still quite a long way off.
“The sooner, the better,” Damore said. “Once immigration’s off the decks, then they can start talking about other issues.”
Other issues, in fact, may be more important to Heck’s re-election.
“I think immigration will be a part of the discussion, but I don’t think it’s going to be the deciding factor in this race,” Wasserman said.
“Democrats will try to make it more of an issue, while I think Heck would probably prefer to talk about health care reform. And the economy and jobs is still a No. 1 issue for voters.”
But what issues really matter won’t be known until after the 2014 election — especially if it turns out to be a close race.
“The dirty secret is that if a race is close, you can point to any number of factors as deciding the vote,” Gonzales said. “If this ends up being a 1-point race, then sure you could say, ‘Immigration was key!’ or you could say, ‘The debt was key.’ You can point to anything just because it’s so close.”
While Heck navigated this week’s public meetings well, floating around the political ring like a seasoned combatant, the various factions of his constituents will be waiting to see if, in the end, they are left stung by his vote.