Republican leaders in Congress have all but declared immigration reform dead for this year. But a group of GOP lawmakers is trying to prove them wrong.
There hasn’t been much good news for immigration reformers this week. Republican leaders who control the House insist they won’t negotiate over the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill and say there’s not enough time to deal with the issue this year.
But Rep. Jeff Denham (R) is trying to channel the frustration of reform backers to force a vote on immigration legislation. The California lawmaker on Thursday challenged his Republican colleagues to identify immigration reforms they could support, rather than simply dismissing existing immigration bills like the Senate’s or smaller bills before the House.
"Show us what you don't like. Show us what you're for,” he said during an event at the New Democrat Network, a liberal advocacy group. “But ultimately, I expect members of Congress—you were elected to be a leader, then lead."
Denham is one of three Republicans who co-sponsors a broad immigration reform bill written by House Democrats, which allows undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship. Three more congressmen, including Republicans, will sign onto the effort this week, the lawmaker said.
He’s one of six GOP lawmakers who are canvassing their colleagues, persuading them to sign a letter voicing support for changing the nation’s immigration laws.
The idea is to convince party leaders that there is enough Republican support to pass a bill.
"My goal again is to grow the amount of support on this issue to force a vote in the House,” he said.
Immigration reformers are trying to reverse the wave of negativity that has enveloped issue, hoping to keep it alive into next year.
There’s only 12 scheduled legislative days left in 2013, hardly enough time to get a bill to the President Obama’s desk. And next year, most observers believe the issue could be smothered by the midterm elections.
Denham acknowledged that passing something this year would require a “tremendous lift.” But he said he’s tired of leaders using the calendar as an “excuse.”
"Just saying we don't have enough time or maybe next year or the next administration, at a certain point, we have to say enough is enough,” he said.
Denham says he has relayed his concerns directly during individual, closed-door meetings with House Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders.
"I've taken that to all members of leadership we've had some—I would say strong conversations—and we're going to continue to have those,” he said.
Boehner spokesperson Sofia Boza said, "the Speaker remains hopeful that the House can and will act on the sort of step-by-step, commonsense reforms the American people support."
But it’s not just time that’s an obstacle. There are deep divisions within the Republican Party over how to tackle immigration reform, which have paralyzed the House.
Boehner has said that he won’t bring any immigration legislation to the floor without the support of the majority his fellow Republicans, or 117 members.The number of Republicans Denham is privately targeting to back immigration reform is much lower— 40-45.
Denham’s sense of urgency is partly rooted in the demographics of his Central Valley district, which is 40 percent Latino. If Republicans are seen as failing to act on immigration reform, it could leave him vulnerable to attacks from Democrats. Denham faces reelection next fall.
On the national level, Republican elites also see immigration reform as gateway to winning back Latino voters who abandoned the party in 2008 and 2012.
But most rank-and-file Republicans have few Latinos voters in their districts. They are reluctant to back proposals that would legalize undocumented immigrants, fearing that could trigger conservative primary challengers who could portray them as weak on enforcement.
"If you're going to tell me you support no pathway to citizenship, then tell me what you do support,” Denham said. "We ultimately have to address the entire undocumented population."
Convincing the rest of the party to think like him is the key problem facing Denham and other Republican reformers. Despite the gridlock in Congress, the congressman says they don’t plan on giving up.
"I am going to stay on this issue until we get a resolution,” he said. “Not until it's passed or signed into law, but until it's actually implemented."
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.