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What Mike Coffman's Switch Means (and Doesn't Mean) for Immigration Reform What Mike Coffman's Switch Means (and Doesn't Mean) for Immigration Re...

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What Mike Coffman's Switch Means (and Doesn't Mean) for Immigration Reform

Rep. Mike Coffman's, R-Colo., evolution on a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants means there might be one more GOP supporter for immigration reform. But it's only important if Coffman can bring more votes with him. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

photo of Scott Bland
February 11, 2013

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., has evolved on immigration, he announced during a town hall meeting in his district Sunday. The man who replaced noted immigration hawk Tom Tancredo in Congress says he now favors a pathway to legal status for immigrants in the country illegally, plus a pathway to citizenship for children in that circumstance.

The Denver Post has the story:

Coffman, a Republican who has proposed anti-immigration legislation in the past, said his change in stance was personal because of interaction with various families. Coffman previously has proposed legislation that would force Colorado's ballots to be English-only and supported a bill to strip natural-born citizenship from children of illegal immigrants.

...

Coffman acknowledged that his stance on the issue is changing. While he supports a path to citizenship for immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, he has not come to a further conclusion.

"I haven't resolved the question about a pathway to citizenship for (adults) who've overstayed their visa or crossed the border illegally," Coffman said.

As Coffman said himself, a lot has changed in the few years since his first congressional race, in 2008, when he campaigned to "deny amnesty and a path to citizenship to those who violate our laws," and even since 2010, when he endorsed Tancredo for governor. One of those changes was to the boundaries of Coffman's 6th Congressional District. After redistricting in 2011, the Hispanic population in Coffman's seat suddenly doubled, according to the latest Census estimates. In going from fewer than nine percent Hispanic to nearly 20 percent Hispanic, the 6th District also ticked above the national average in that population share. Now, Coffman is one of just 50 House Republicans whose districts are more Hispanic than the nation as a whole.

It's no mere coincidence that Coffman's evolution coincided with his district's. The congressman hinted at the relation by crediting his change of heart to personal interactions. When his district changed, it brought Coffman in contact with big, natural pressure groups that forced the Republican to confront the issue in a way he simply didn't see in the old, whitewashed version of his district. Now, the forces pushing immigration reform have added another strong conservative to their ranks, which they hope will give more House Republicans the political cover they need to bring a reform effort to the House floor.

However, there are relatively few House Republicans positioned to make the same switch Coffman did. More than 110 members of their conference represent seats where the voting-age population is greater than 80 percent white, like Coffman's old district. Coffman's new immigration position means there might be one more Republican vote for comprehensive reform, but the more important question is whether the 2013 version of Mike Coffman can persuade colleagues more like his 2008 iteration that supporting a path to legalization is the best course.

Coffman needed this change -- among other things, he has already drawn a marquee Democratic challenger, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, whose path to victory requires the Hispanic support that helped President Obama carry the district in 2012. Nationally-focused GOP strategists also recognize that the party has to make progress with Hispanics to compete in future presidential elections.

But most of the House GOP doesn't need Hispanic votes to get elected. Unless the arguments and experience of Coffman and other diverse-district Republicans appeal to conservatives representing seats more like Coffman's old one, it will be difficult for immigration reform proposals that include a pathway to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally to pass the House.

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