Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) shook up the immigration debate on Sunday with an interview on Univision, during which he announced his decision to become the first Republican to join 185 Democrats in co-sponsoring legislation that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
This is big news. Denham's decision opens the door for other Republicans who've spoken in favor of citizenship to take the next step by signing on to H.R. 15, which is similar to the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in June, without the much-criticized border surge. It also shows why there may be a better chance of moving immigration reform through the House this fall than some pundits think.
Congressman Denham represents a District that is about one-third Latino, and he's married to a first-generation Mexican-American. Still, it took a lot of organizing in his district to get him to buck his party. Along the way, it's been abundantly clear that the benefits of embracing immigrants vastly outweigh the costs, even in conservative parts of the country.
Over the past year, organizations such as Mi Familia Vota, CHIRLA and PICO California, which have worked for years to empower Latino voters in the Central Valley, turned the heat up on Denham and other House members in the region. Reps. Denham, David Valadao, Devin Nunes and Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP Whip, have all felt sustained pressure from constituents, including business leaders, to support reform, with little opposition.
One local group that's been especially active in pressing Denham to lead on citizenship is Congregations Building Community (CBC), a faith-based organizing affiliate of PICO California. In 2012, CBC spoke face-to-face or on the phone with 13,707 voters, mostly Latino, to encourage them to vote and to support a state revenue measure. After the election, CBC clergy and volunteer leaders began meeting with Congressman Denham to talk about immigration. Over the past year they report having had 26 meetings with Denham and his staff.
In April, CBC organized a 1,500-person town hall meeting at a Catholic church in Modesto. Denham brought Congressman Trey Gowdy (S.C.) who chairs the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security. Denham and Gowdy listened to story after story from immigrant families, but made no commitment to support a path to citizenship.
In July, Denham spoke favorably in the press about the Senate immigration bill. In August, at a second town-hall meeting organized by CBC in Patterson, Calif., he welcomed 14 Pilgrims who were walking 280 miles from Sacramento to Bakersfield to tell their stories and make the case for reform. The Congressman used the meeting to reiterate his support for the path to citizenship; and CBC pushed him to be proactive in asking House Republican leaders to schedule a vote.
In October PICO organizations in the Central Valley partnered with the United Farmworkers to hold an event in Fresno to release poll results from America's Voice showing broad public support for immigration reform and citizenship in the district.
Now that Denham has stepped up, CBC and other groups in the district are working to make sure that he isn't just trying to protect himself, but is actively working to organize other House Republicans and pressing Speaker Boehner to allow a vote. With support from an array of national organizations, they've launched a campaign to reach out to thousands of local residents to ask them to both thank Denham and urge him to take the next step in fighting for a vote this fall.
One of the most notable things about the immigration debate in the Central Valley - one of the most conservative areas of the state -- has been how overwhelmingly positive the media coverage has been and the virtually complete absence of meaningful opposition to reform.
Groups like CBC have won the battle for hearts and minds -- they've shown without question that being pro-immigrant is not just the right and moral thing to do, but it brings a big political upside without any real downside.
While Denham and his district are unique, the larger pattern -- growing Latino political influence, broad public support for immigration reform and an organized movement for citizenship - hold true in a growing number of Republican districts across the country. It's not just Republican Presidential candidates who face long odds if their party does not get right with immigrants; it is hard to imagine the Republican Party holding the House or regaining the Senate over the next few electoral cycles if it continues to communicate to Latino and Asian immigrants that it does not want them in the country.
Every day the federal government deports an average of more than 1,100 people, many of whom are parents of U.S. citizen children. The stories of people caught up in the machinery of detention and deportation are heartbreaking.
We have the urgency, we know that members of Congress face few if any political consequences for moving forward on common sense legislation that includes an earned pathway to citizenship.
Now let's see other Republicans follow Denham. Each signature puts more pressure on Speaker Boehner and his team to recalibrate and allow a vote that they know is good for families, the country and the Republican Party.
Follow Gordon Whitman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PICOgordon