WASHINGTON -- Immigration matters more than ever to Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, as the conservative California lawmaker adjusts to a San Joaquin Valley district with a large Hispanic population.
On Thursday, Denham further stepped up his noteworthy drumbeat by joining a Democratic colleague in calling for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
The call echoed similar exhortations Denham previously made in a closed-door session with his fellow GOP lawmakers, many of whom are skeptical about far-reaching immigration legislation but few of whom outside of California represent districts with a similar ethnic make-up.
“This is how things are supposed to be done, on a bipartisan basis,” Denham said Thursday at a Capitol Hill briefing. He added that “we’re here to talk about a top-to-bottom approach.”
His ally Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., used the well-worn term “comprehensive immigration reform” in speaking to a standing-room-only audience of about 100 staffers, reporters and others. Denham preferred the phrase “top to bottom.” Both terms mean combining border security, internal immigration enforcement, improved visa and guest worker programs and some form of legalization for immigrants already in the country.
“Securing the border has to come first,” Denham said, “but it has to be part of a top-to-bottom approach.”
Pointedly, Denham added that “we need to be looking at earned legal status” for those currently in the country illegally, and he said “the Senate has made great progress in this area.”
In June, the Senate approved by a 68-32 margin a major immigration package that included a path to citizenship expected to take at least 13 years. In a nod to Republicans, the Senate also added multi-billion dollar provisions calling for 20,000 additional Border Patrol officers and other border control provisions.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has targeted Denham, dismissed Denham’s news event Thursday as “grandstanding.” DCCC spokesman Matt Inzeo said Denham should “spend his time convincing the leaders of his broken Republican Congress to hold a vote on comprehensive immigration reform.”
House Republican leaders have already indicated they won’t take up the entire Senate bill. Instead, following the August congressional recess that starts next week, the House will take up a series of bills. One, for instance, would require a nationwide employer verification system. Another would boost border security.
Yet House Republicans are also sharply divided over how far to go, and the caucus that has struggled to pass normally routine measures like a farm bill and annual appropriations bills faces even more deep-seated challenges on immigration.
“There are a few people who want to be very, very extreme,” Cardenas said.
The loudest Republican voice on immigration issues, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, represents a district where only 6 percent of the residents are counted as Hispanic. King’s comments have occasionally dismayed even his fellow Republicans, as when he recently denounced a Senate bill that offers a path to citizenship for immigrants in this country illegally, including those who entered as schoolchildren.
“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another hundred out there who weigh a hundred and thirty pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling seventy-five pounds of marijuana across the desert. Those people would be legalized with the same act,” King told Newsmax, a conservative news and opinion outlet, in a July 18 interview.
The 10th Congressional District now represented by Denham encompasses roughly 713,000 residents of Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County. Forty percent are counted as Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau.
Denham’s district is not entirely unique. His freshman Republican colleague, Rep. David Valadao of Hanford, represents a district where Hispanic residents make up 72 percent of all residents. Forty-five percent of the constituents represented by veteran Republican Rep. Devin Nunes are counted as Hispanic.
Outside of California, though, Republican-dominated congressional districts frequently have small Hispanic populations. On average, according to a tally by analyst Nate Silver, Hispanics account for only 11 percent of the residents of House districts represented by Republicans. That’s less than half the average for Democratic districts. And though such demographics are not necessarily the same as political destiny, they can definitely play a role in shaping viewpoints.
Denham said he expects the House to take up in the fall legislation addressing the population of immigrants who entered the United States illegally while still children. He further said he expects this bill to include a measure he has already introduced, offering a path to U.S. citizenship for undocumented immigrants who serve in the U.S. military.