House Republican Whip Is Target of Immigration-Reform Advocates in California

Josth Stenner and Diana Campos lead a procession of more than a dozen marchers on the first day of a 21-day march calling for immigration reform, in Sacramento, Calif. Monday, Aug. 12, 2013. The 285-mile walk through California's Central Valley will end in Bakersfield at the district office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., where a rally will be held calling for his support for an an immigration reform bill in Congress. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
National Journal
Rebecca Kaplan
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Rebecca Kaplan
Aug. 14, 2013, 3:21 p.m.

No Re­pub­lic­an has re­ceived more pub­lic pres­sure from im­mig­ra­tion ad­voc­ates over the re­cess than House Ma­jor­ity Whip Kev­in Mc­Carthy of Cali­for­nia. In a show of force Wed­nes­day, thou­sands of act­iv­ists rolled in­to Mc­Carthy’s Bakersfield-area dis­trict. Their de­mands: A vote on an im­mig­ra­tion-re­form bill that in­cludes a path to cit­izen­ship for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants already in the United States. And they want the vote by Sept. 30.

They car­ried can­ta­loupes (in a nod to anti-am­nesty cru­sader Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who said most young il­leg­al im­mig­rants had calves the size of the mel­on from haul­ing drugs), Amer­ic­an flags, and signs warn­ing of dire elect­or­al con­sequences for the GOP if the party doesn’t sup­port im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

Be­fore the re­cess, ad­voc­ates for cit­izen­ship had iden­ti­fied Mc­Carthy — whose dis­trict has a 35 per­cent His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion and a sig­ni­fic­ant ag­ri­cul­tur­al pres­ence — as the best way to in­flu­ence House Speak­er John Boehner, R-Ohio. “He can do a lot to con­vince Boehner to al­low a vote” on le­gis­la­tion that in­cludes cit­izen­ship, Eliseo Med­ina of the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on said in Ju­ly.

But even as the third-rank­ing mem­ber of the House GOP lead­er­ship comes squarely in the crosshairs of the act­iv­ists, it’s un­clear wheth­er Mc­Carthy will ac­cede to their de­mands. Last week dur­ing an event in New­port Beach, he backed some form of leg­al status for un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants but stopped short of al­low­ing cit­izen­ship, ac­cord­ing to The Daily Pi­lot.

“I per­son­ally be­lieve it’s dif­fer­ent for someone who’s been here 30 years than if they’ve been here three months,” Mc­Carthy said, sug­gest­ing people could work to­ward leg­al status by pay­ing a pen­alty. Chil­dren, on the oth­er hand, were “dif­fer­ent,” he said. “This is your coun­try. You have no oth­er place to go.”

Or­gan­izers of the Bakersfield rally es­tim­ated that 5,000 people at­ten­ded, in­clud­ing many who ar­rived in what they de­scribed as the largest cara­van in Cali­for­nia his­tory. Bakersfield po­lice, however, es­tim­ated the crowd at 1,500.

Mc­Carthy’s re­sponse to the rally, is­sued through a spokes­man, was po­lite but non­com­mit­tal. “I think that it is al­ways healthy to have a dia­logue on the im­port­ant is­sues of the day, and I wel­come folks com­ing to vis­it Bakersfield,” he said. “While I have met with many groups across the spec­trum of the im­mig­ra­tion re­form de­bate, in the end, I value the in­put of my con­stitu­ents in the 23rd Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict most. I have long said that our im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem is broken, but rather than take up the Sen­ate bill, the House will move in a step-by-step ap­proach that first se­cures the bor­der.”

Many in the GOP have co­alesced around the idea of treat­ing the chil­dren of il­leg­al im­mig­rants with more le­ni­ency. House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, R-Va., and House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte, R-Va., are work­ing on a bill that would ad­dress that is­sue, though no House mem­bers have offered up le­gis­la­tion deal­ing with the rest of the es­tim­ated 11 mil­lion in the un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion.

Still, act­iv­ists in fa­vor of com­pre­hens­ive le­gis­la­tion have por­trayed the re­cess so far as a suc­cess, pick­ing up a few Re­pub­lic­an sup­port­ers since mem­bers left town in early Au­gust. At an im­mig­ra­tion pan­el earli­er this week, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., de­scribed the 13-year path­way to cit­izen­ship in the Sen­ate bill as “reas­on­able” be­cause it re­quires back­ground checks, fines, back taxes, em­ploy­ment, and pro­fi­ciency in Eng­lish. Rep. Dave Reich­ert, R-Wash., said in a ra­dio in­ter­view that when it comes to im­mig­rants in the coun­try il­leg­ally, “I want to hold them ac­count­able, and then they get cit­izen­ship.”

Rep. Daniel Web­ster, R-Fla., told the Or­lando Sen­tinel that he would sup­port cit­izen­ship as long as it had sev­er­al pre­con­di­tions: a 90 per­cent ap­pre­hen­sion rate of those try­ing to enter il­leg­ally, a na­tion­wide E-Veri­fy sys­tem, and al­low­ing state and loc­al au­thor­it­ies to en­force im­mig­ra­tion law — an idea that has been met with fierce res­ist­ance from Demo­crats.

Im­mig­ra­tion does not ap­pear to have dom­in­ated town halls with the same in­tens­ity that the health care law did in the sum­mer of 2009. Still, some law­makers have been pushed to take a stance on the is­sue.

Asked for his opin­ion on a path­way to cit­izen­ship at a town-hall meet­ing, Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., said, “I think there needs to be a se­cure bor­der, and I think when that hap­pens and people have paid their back taxes and they haven’t com­mit­ted any vi­ol­a­tion of laws, they’ve been here on a pro­ba­tion­ary peri­od, then they can ap­ply for cit­izen­ship and go to the back of the line.” Steve Dut­ton, a spokes­man for Schock, un­der­lined that his boss did not use the phrase “path­way to cit­izen­ship,” but is in­ter­ested in le­gis­la­tion that ad­dress all as­pects of the im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem.

On a smal­ler scale, groups who op­pose any form of leg­al­iz­a­tion have launched a “Stop Am­nesty Tour” that began with an event in Rich­mond, Va., earli­er this week — a stone’s throw away from Can­tor’s dis­trict. Rep­res­ent­at­ives from Num­ber­sUSA and Tea Party Pat­ri­ots were joined by Iowa’s Steve King, whose com­ments last month sug­gest­ing most young il­leg­al im­mig­rants were drug smug­glers be­came a pain for the GOP lead­er­ship and a P.R. bless­ing for those seek­ing to paint Re­pub­lic­ans as be­ing held host­age by a vo­cal minor­ity. More events on im­mig­ra­tion re­form are be­ing planned for Har­ris­burg, Pa.; Dal­las; Toledo, Ohio; and South Car­o­lina. 

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