FALLS CITY, Neb. -- Rodney Vandenberg was the first to greet Republican Sen. Deb Fischer when she dropped by the Falls City's Chamber of Commerce office last week. He wasted no time bracing her about immigration, an issue that a Senate committee takes up Thursday in the form of sweeping overhaul legislation.
"There can be no shortcuts to citizenship for anyone," the retired banker and former mayor said, gripping Fischer's hand with both of his.
"My views have not changed," she replied, assuring him of her opposition.
That's what Vandenberg wanted to hear, but it's an ominous message for Republican leaders who believe that making the party dominant nationally hinges on accepting a more welcoming immigration policy, one that would attract more Hispanic voters. A bill that would make it easier for people living in the country illegally to obtain legal status is being debated by a Senate committee.
Key Republicans are supporting the idea, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, likely 2016 presidential candidates, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2012.
But while the shift to a less hard-edged position on immigration might make good political sense for the GOP nationally, with the nation's Hispanic population growing steadily, it makes little sense locally for many of the Republican lawmakers who will be asked for vote for it. Their political fortunes depend on conservative white voters who have strong feelings about people slipping across the border to live in this country.
The gap between these two perspectives could mean trouble for a sweeping new immigration overhaul. A bill may emerge from the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats who are largely supportive, but it would face an uncertain fate in the conservative, GOP-controlled House, where more members do not have to answer to Latino voters.
A swath of two dozen states in the middle and southern parts of the country make up the Republican heartland, overwhelmingly electing Republicans to the Senate and House. Despite the recent Hispanic population surge, that region remains more than 80 percent white, and whites account for more than 90 percent of the votes that successful Republican candidates there receive, according to exit polls. In the Senate, 22 of the 45 GOP members come from states where minorities are still below 30 percent of the population.
The demographic picture is much different in other places, with the Hispanic population in the U.S. up 65 percent since 2000. Republican candidates are struggling in some of them, and Republican Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 presidential race was attributed in part to his receiving only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
"At some point Republicans have to make a decision to move forward or continue to live with their heads in the sand," said Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster and campaign adviser.
But for Midwestern members like Fischer, the strategists' arguments are countered again and again by the voices of her supporters, many of them rural conservatives, who elected her last year over Democrat Bob Kerrey by a margin of 58 to 42 percent.
"What I hear from most Nebraskans is the same," she told Vandenberg.
On her trip home during last week's congressional recess, Fischer traveled the rolling farm roads of the southeastern part of her state, meeting with small town residents and hearing them out.
"What's important is following the laws of the land," said Mary Gerdes, a farmer from tiny Johnson who drove the hour to see Fischer in Falls City. "Marco Rubio and John McCain don't speak for me, even though we're all Republicans."
Local Republican officials in the area also haven't adopted a new line.
By accepting those who entered illegally, "We're just permitting people to scoff at the law," said Nathan Bartels, a farmer and chairman of the Johnson County Republicans. "Should we accommodate rape and murder? Breaking the law is breaking the law."
Fischer, a rancher and conservative state senator before her election last year, says she will strictly oppose giving the immigrants a "pathway to citizenship." She said she does not support the provision in the bill co-sponsored Rubio, McCain and a bi-partisan group of six other senators.
She also said the bill's provision to clamp down on the illicit flow over the U.S.-Mexican border – which is aimed at making the measure more palatable to conservative Republicans – is inadequate.
"How do you monitor it, to verify that it is truly happening?" Fischer said after a meeting in Nebraska City. "I don't know that the gang of eight, if they've looked at that."
The immigrant population is more visible in Nebraska, particularly in the agriculture industry. Not far from Bartels' farm, the Smart Chicken plant in Tecumseh employs about 150 workers, many of whom are Hispanic.
But at Nebraska City's Lied Lodge, the hotel workers – an occupation that draws immigrants elsewhere – is mostly white and English-speaking.
Outreach to Hispanic voters is not yet a pressing concern. In the 2010 census, the state's population was 82 percent white and 5.7 percent Hispanic.
Other Nebraska Republicans sound the same pessimistic note about accommodating immigrants. Gov. Dave Heineman, who is weighing a campaign for Nebraska's other seat, said, "We're all opposed to amnesty."
In neighboring Iowa, the Hispanic population is more apparent. In Iowa, Hispanic workers fill the state's numerous meatpacking plants. In Republican-leaning Utah, the state's fruit and vegetable industries thrive with migrant labor.
But Republican members of Congress there are conscious of the strong feelings of their core supporters. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley has said he's skeptical about aspects of the bill. Utah Sen. Mike Lee said the bill lumps too many facets of immigration together.
In most of these Republican states, GOP candidates worry more about challenges from ultra-conservatives on the right flank of their party than from Democrat opponents.
"There's no doubt in certain Republican populations, people are saying `No way,' " said GOP pollster Strimple.
Susan Gumm, who drove 60 miles from Omaha to Nebraska City to see Fischer last week, said Republicans who would soften the nation's immigration laws to curry favor with new voters will alienate the voters they have.
"They will destroy the Republican Party," she said.
Associated Press writer Margery Beck contributed from Omaha, Neb.
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The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)
California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.
The Worst: Arizona SB 1070
The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)
Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87
The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17
Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502
This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>
A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497
Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)
The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C
Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010
The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56
The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>