The most promising immigration reform effort in years faded away in 2013, but that won’t stop supporters of an overhaul from pounding away at the political force blocking a bill: Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Fast for Families, a group of immigration activists who have been forgoing food for reform, will later this month take their campaign to the districts of House members, lauding their allies (mostly Democrats) and castigating opponents (all Republicans), organizers said.
The country’s largest business association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also intends to pressure congressmen who oppose reform.
“If you can’t make them see the light, then at least make them feel some heat,” Tom Donohue, president of the chamber, said on Wednesday.
But will House Republicans who ignore immigration reform suffer in the 2014 midterm elections? Experts don’t believe so.
Latino and Asian-American voters played an influential role in the 2012 presidential election, but are not expected to have as much sway in competitive House races this year, according to David Wasserman, who analyzes House elections for the Cook Political Report.
“With Latino turnout near-certain to drop as a share of the electorate in any midterm election, there are almost no repercussions for Republicans failing to pass an immigration bill,” Wasserman told Fusion in an email. “In addition, while the Chamber of Commerce will push for a comprehensive bill, it's not in their nature to spend to defeat Republicans to oppose one in the fall.”
Tom K. Wong, an assistant professor of political science at UC San Diego, agrees.
“There are a few key races, but immigration will not affect Republicans as a whole in 2014,” he said in a phone interview.
Out of 233 House Republicans, only 24 represent a district where Latinos make up a quarter of the population or more, according to a Cook Political Report analysis. And just four of these districts were carried by President Obama in 2012.
Most GOP members face a greater risk of a primary challenge from the right for backing immigration reform, not the prospect of losing a general election over it.
That doesn’t mean activism targeting Congress members in 2014 is a waste. Immigration reform backers can pressure House Republicans in a handful of swing districts, forcing them to openly support a bill or take their chances against challengers.
Wong has identified six races in particular where he believes Latino and Asian voters — those most concerned with immigration reform — could make the issue relevant.
He used three main factors to make the determination: the number of Latinos and Asians in the district, the percentage of voters who backed President Obama in the last election, and the number of young Hispanics and Asians who will reach voting age.
The Republicans? Reps. Gary Miller (Calif.), Mike Coffman (Colo.), Rodney Davis (Ill.), Michael Grimm (N.Y.), Buck McKeon (Calif.), and Jeff Denham (Calif.).
Denham is one of three Republicans already supporting a Democratic immigration reform bill in the House. Wong says the outcome of his race could help determine whether immigration reform has any momentum this year.
“If he wins and he wins big, then it’s a signal that others could go for reform,” Wong said.
The Senate already passed a broad bipartisan immigration bill last summer, meaning that the House must act next. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he won’t bring a bill to the floor of the House without the majority support of his party, which is highly unlikely at present. Instead, Republicans are drafting a set of principles on immigration reform that could serve as a precursor to a bill.
Boehner has repeatedly said he wants to pass an immigration bill, and has shown contempt for Tea Party Republicans, who would present the strongest opposition to legislation.
That’s given some activists and pundits hope for an overhaul this year, but Wong says it’s a longshot:
“We’re talking about a sliver of daylight.”
Without the threat of losing an election for blocking an immigration bill, the Republican rank-and-file must be convinced that acting on reform is good for the party as a whole. That will be a tough task in a divided GOP.
“I think for immigration to matter in the 2014 midterm, advocates have to really work on voter mobilization, getting these new voters registered and out to the polls,” Wong said. “They have to activate the base that really cares about immigration reform.”
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.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.