CORRECTION NOTE: The original version of this story said Rep. Paul Cook from the northern Mojave Desert would consider legislation that includes a legal visa and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, so long as the bill included strict border and visa enforcement. Cook has not said if he supports legalization, though he does favor stronger enforcement.
California’s Republican members of the U.S. House are grappling with a dicey question: whether or not to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants. Legalization is the hot-button, make-or-break issue in a broader deal over comprehensive immigration reform. As of now, at least three of California's 15 Republican members of Congress are speaking out in favor of granting green cards that lead to citizenship.
Junior Republican Out Front
In mid-July the House GOP met behind closed doors to debate immigration reform. Just days later, Republican Rep. David Valadao was headlining a town hall meeting on the same subject, organized by a prominent pro-immigration group.
Valadao said without hesitation, “I support a path to legalization. That’s not an issue. We’ve had a broken immigration system for decades.”
He was speaking in Bakersfield. The Central Valley city is divided between two congressmen: Valadao, a junior member who has been in office just eight months, and Kevin McCarthy, the Republican whip and his senior by far.
Yet Valadao was in McCarthy's part of town, at the Bakersfield Christian Church.
Valadao said, "When you look at a lot of the Republicans, they represent typically non-immigrant communities. It’s one they haven’t faced and haven’t taken the time to study quite like I have.”
While the Latino voter base is growing throughout California, Valadao’s district is at the forefront of this trend. His constituency is about three-quarters Latino.
Legalization means getting a legal visa and, after many years, full U.S. citizenship. Valadao told the audience, full of farmworkers and their families, “It’s going to take some time to educate (other Republicans) on my part.”
Valadao was not standing on stage alone. He was with Rep. Luis Gutierrez -- the Illinois Democrat who's such a pro-immigration die-hard that he got himself arrested protesting President Barack Obama.
At one moment, Gutierrez raised his fist and said, “It's time for the Republicans who control the House and the speaker of the House to allow a vote." Valadao was among the first to clap his hands for this demand to push through a reform bill quickly.
California's GOP Changing
KQED contacted every Republican representative in California’s House delegation. Two other congressmen -- Devin Nunes and Jeff Denham of the San Joaquin Valley – said they support legalization, as long as a bill includes strict border and visa enforcement.
Angelica Salas is the director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, which organized the town hall. Salas said the state's GOP is changing, and she is encouraged because they sound friendlier now than the last time Congress took up the issue.
"In 2006, the California Republicans were the ones who were our strongest adversaries,” Salas said.
Then, only two of California's 20 Republican House members supported a bill to legalize undocumented farmworkers. Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego), who chaired the Immigration Reform Caucus, pushed bills to strip citizenship from babies born here to undocumented parents.
Bilbray lost his seat to a Democrat. Salas credits redistricting, and race.
The GOP controlled redistricting across much of the country. In California they did not, and they lost five seats in the House last year.
As the state's Latino voter base grows rapidly, polls show they overwhelmingly support a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Salas said, "What's happening in California is representative of what could happen to Republicans across the country."
The Undecided Middle
Republican Dana Rohrabacher has represented Orange County for nearly a quarter-century. He remains outspoken against legalization. He fears his colleagues are caving to illegal border crossers, and the powerful high-tech and agriculture lobbies that want cheap labor.
Rohrabacher said, "A lot of my people have buckled under. Who wants to be called a racist? Who wants people to say they’re mean-spirited, nasty people?"
California Republicans Darrell Issa and Gary Miller, for example, are now showing signs of softening their hard-line stance against comprehensive reform.
"I think a lot of our people have sort of hesitated to step up and be as aggressive and passionate on this issue as they should have been,” Rohrabacher said, “And if they would be, the political situation in California and elsewhere would be totally different."
The Republican whip back in 2005 supported a bill to criminally prosecute undocumented immigrants and the citizens who aided them. Today's whip, Kevin McCarthy, is staying quiet, even though he could sway a lot of fellow Republicans. McCarthy did not respond to repeated media inquiries.
Rohrabacher's take: "Kevin’s tried to be a little bit more flexible. And not being quite a yes-or-no type of situation. I think he’s left a lot of maybes on the table."
United Farm Workers Vice President Giev Kashkooli has a different read. He said Republicans are holding out for punitive border and interior enforcement measures. Even those who support legalization, he said, may be saying that in order to garner political cover and blame the Democrats if and when a comprehensive bill fails to pass. “I’m pushing on the nuance here,” Kashkooli said.
There's split opinion on how much Latino voters care about immigration reform compared with, say, education or health care.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, opposes legalization. And Mehlman said that if it passes, the Democrats will get the credit.
"What the Republicans seem to be doing -- or at least some of them -- is pandering in the expectation that if they jump on board the amnesty bandwagon, they're going to attract significant numbers of voters,” Mehlman said. “And there really is no reason to believe that that's going to happen."
Maribel Olvera is the kind of voter that Rep. Valadao is trying to court. Olvera brought her parents -- both undocumented farmworkers -- to the Bakersfield town hall.
She met Valadao for the first time and said with a big smile, “I did not know he was for immigration reform. So I’m really shocked right now, very excited.”
Olvera said she did not vote for Valadao in the last election. Asked if his stance on legalization will win her vote next time around, she paused, stumbled on her words, and concluded, “Maybe.”
Olvera was at once enthusiastic and hesitant. How House Republicans hear her voice will shape their own voice on how to reform the broken immigration system.