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September 20, 2017

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Immigration reform may be tougher sell with House Republicans


Leila Navidi

President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Tuesday, January 29, 2013.

If this week’s immigration announcements from President Barack Obama and a bipartisan Senate working group established anything, it is that there are more points upon which they agree than disagree — including, critically, the notion that Congress must offer undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

But what about the House?

Next week, the House of Representatives turns its attention to the revived issue of immigration reform with a hearing in its Judiciary Committee, the chairman of which considers the proposed pathway to citizenship to be “amnesty.”

“No one should be surprised that individuals who have supported amnesty in the past still support amnesty,” Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement. “When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration.”

Smith does not speak for all House Republicans, much like Sens. Marco Rubio, John McCain, Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham — the four Republicans participating in the bipartisan Senate group crafting a comprehensive bill — do not speak for all Republicans in the Senate.

But House Republicans have not kept pace with the Senate Republicans’ evolving position on immigration reform — not nationwide or in Nevada.

“The House is a different animal, and the dynamics are different there,” said UNLV political science professor David Damore. “Once this goes to the House, it’s just going to slow down.”

Immigration has never been a cleanly Republican-vs.-Democrat issue. But the growth of the Hispanic electorate and the disappearance of moderate Democrats from Congress has helped polarize the political dynamics of immigration since the last time this issue was up for consideration in 2007.

The result is that Democrats, by and large, have inherited the reputation as the party that is friendly toward immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, while Republicans are seen as more exclusive in their approach, favoring stepped-up enforcement over expansion of the existing immigration laws.

But Senate Republicans are moving faster than they are in the House to declare themselves champions of the middle ground.

Take Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, for example: The last time there was a concerted congressional effort on immigration, Heller, then barely off his first election to Congress as the representative for the 2nd District, was talking about the evils of legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants.

Today, he’s declared himself to be firmly in favor of a pathway to citizenship for at least the younger, college-enrolled and military-enlisted immigrants who came to the U.S. as children — something that until recently, only the Democrats of the Nevada delegation supported.

In the House, however, neither Nevada Rep. Joe Heck, who represents the 3rd District, nor Nevada Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents the 2nd, has moved as far to the center.

“A lot of it is explained by constituency dynamics,” said UNR political science professor Eric Herzik. “The safe spot in CD2 has always been ‘build a fence, and if that’s not enough, electrify it.’ So I don’t think you’re going to get a lot of movement from Amodei.”

Amodei’s district, the one Heller used to represent, has a more conservative and less ethnically diverse constituency than the state as a whole.

Those constituent breakdowns are important to note when considering lawmakers and their positions on the issues.

At the polls, Democrats have steadily been gaining favor among Hispanic voters — a population with large immigrant representation — since former President George W. Bush’s administration.

Republicans — especially in states with large Hispanic populations, such as Nevada — have noted the losses. But in the districts where Hispanics are not as numerous, the message reverberated less strongly.

“A Democrat is not going to take out Mark Amodei." Herzik said. "The only person that’s going to take out Mark Amodei is Mark Amodei, or a challenge from the right.

“But Heck is a harder one to understand. In a district like CD3, that is a prescription to lose. So it will be interesting to see how Heck evolves on this.”

Heck’s district has a more evenly split political profile and a larger Hispanic population — it’s more than 30 percent of his district.

Yet, he has not moved as Heller has to embrace the immigration position most of those Hispanic constituents endorse.

“What we literally have right now is a speech and a framework,” Heck’s spokesman Greg Lemon said Wednesday. “Let’s see what the bill is going to look like.”

Lemon added that Heck has spoken in favor of border security and employer verification and against amnesty in his time as a congressman. All are safe positions within the Republican Party.

“Heck’s trying to figure out not only his district ... he also has to deal with his other colleagues in order to get anything done,” Herzik said. “And right now in the House, he’s got 80 Tea Party members who will not even talk about immigration reform ... so how much grief will he catch within his caucus?”

But part of the reason he has not had to go further is that the House is not likely to move before the Senate has completed its work.

In the House, there is a group of lawmakers who, much like the group of senators who put out their framework Monday, are working to hash out a mutually agreeable framework on immigration reform.

“The reality is, to fix the system, we have to pass legislation, and the only way we can pass legislation is if it is bipartisan,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, one of the Republicans in the House’s immigration working group.

Diaz-Balart likes the look of the Senate’s framework and expects the House to rally 218 votes around a similar proposal because “reasonable people who want to solve this are going to reach relatively similar conclusions.”

But House negotiators have made less progress than counterparts in the Senate. According to various reports, the House group might not have a proposal until the State of the Union speech Feb. 12. Senators had expected to finish turning this week’s framework into a piece of legislation within just a few weeks of that date, then work through the spring to pass the bill.

But even if the Senate successfully passes an immigration compromise, it faces a much harder road in the House.

“If you get something in the Senate, it’s almost going to be daring the House Republicans to kill it,” Damore said. “But if the Senate vote comes in and Boehner says, 'I’m going to put this up for an up-or-down vote,' then I think it’s got a good chance.”

This week, House Speaker John Boehner’s only contribution to the immigration debate was to warn the president against dragging the debate to the left.

But leading House Republicans on immigration say that doesn’t mean that he resists the idea of a comprehensive bill.

“It is very clear that Speaker Boehner wants to fix the broken immigration system,” Diaz-Balart said.

Diaz-Balart doesn’t worry about having the support of leadership, but he does admit that getting the support of some Republicans is “going to be a very difficult lift.”

“There are some folks that no matter what you present on this issue, they just can’t support anything. That’s just a reality; not based on the merits, just based on emotion,” Diaz-Balart said. “But I think there are more people in both parties in the House who, despite the high level of emotions this brings out, will want to actually fix what everybody understands to be broken.”

Ultimately, the success of the immigration reform in Congress will depend on the lawmakers, such as Heck, who could swing either way — and likely live to fight another political day.

“In CD3, Heck has to make this calculation: It’s not as easy as the Tea Party, ‘just vote no,’ or the liberal-leaning, ‘this is unfair to these deserving illegals,’” Herzik said. “Heck’s position is the hardest one in the state. That district is the hardest one.”

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