House Immigration Chair Elton Gallegly, the Anti-Steve King

Elton Gallegly, the California Republican unexpectedly chosen over Steve King to lead the House immigration subcommittee, doesn’t haunt the cable-news circuit or put out inflammatory statements like King—but don’t call him a moderate.

Elton Gallegly, the Republican congressman from California who took over the House immigration subcommittee in January. (Credit: Tom Williams, Roll Call / Getty Images),Tom Williams

Forty minutes into my interview with Elton Gallegly, the Republican congressman from California who took over the House immigration subcommittee in January, I make a mistake, at least as far as Gallegly is concerned. We are talking about why he was chosen for the post over Steve King, who had both seniority and a knack for stirring up controversy, when I ask him if it was because Gallegly is seen as being more moderate than his colleague from Iowa.

There’s a slight pause. The corners of Gallegly’s mouth turn down as he cocks his head, squints, and asks sternly, “How is that?” He doesn’t seem pleased with my word choice. “Some people are much better about holding press conferences and doing TV interviews,” he explains. “I’m the guy that likes to sit back and observe.”

So far as chairman, Gallegly has pursued a strategy that most observers have described as less inflammatory than the one they expected from King, who infamously compared illegal immigration to a “slow-moving holocaust” and once suggested from the House floor that we electrify the border fence with Mexico since “we do that with livestock all the time.” In his first few hearings, Gallegly has largely avoided the headline-grabbing topics—anchor babies, the DREAM Act, and the Arizona immigration law—that tend to bring Republicans sharp criticism. Instead, he has focused his committee on going after businesses that employ undocumented workers.

To that end, Gallegly will introduce a bill next month that will require businesses to use a computer program known as E-Verify to confirm the immigration status of each new employee. The system, which checks Social Security numbers against federal databases, has been in place since 1997, thanks in large part to Gallegly, but it remains voluntary. (Only about 238,000 companies use the system, says the Department of Homeland Security.) Gallegly is convinced the legislation will open up millions of jobs for out-of-work Americans.

“We have 14 million people that are unemployed in this country,” says Gallegly, who was elected in 1986. “Are illegals taking all of those jobs? Of course not. We know that. Are the illegals the only reason that we’re having economics problems? We know that isn’t the case, but it is having a profound effect.”

“Are the illegals the only reason that we’re having economics problems?” asks Gallegly. “We know that isn’t the case, but it is having a profound effect.”

If Gallegly is seen as less hawkish on immigration than King, it may be a matter of style, not substance. Gallegly tends to keep a lower profile and is rarely found on the cable-news circuit, but his legislative record is as hard-line as they come. He has taken up the cause of denying citizenship to children born in this country to illegal immigrants, introducing so-called birthright-citizenship legislation two decades ago. Gallegly also has supported measures that would make English the official language and allow states to deny public education to the kids of illegal immigrants. In 2004, he voted for a bill that would cut off federal funding for hospitals that don’t report the immigration status of certain patients.

E-Verify, which Gallegly has been championing for years in one form or another, is certainly less controversial than some of the other measures Republicans introduced during the last Congress, when they didn’t control the House. In theory, most people can get behind a measure that’s aimed at helping employers figure out whom they can hire legally, though Democrats argue E-Verify would force more businesses to hire employees off the books. By tying immigration to persistent unemployment, Republicans are trying to set themselves up as the champions of those hurt hardest by the economic downturn.

But the new chairman may be outflanked on the right. King plans to push ahead with his own agenda and will circumvent Gallegly’s subcommittee to do it. “When you really look at it, there is a lot of immigration [policymaking] that goes on outside the immigration committee, and I’ve been interested in the whole subject, not just within the jurisdiction of the subcommittee itself,” King says. His first priority is “to stop the bleeding”—by which he means the flow of undocumented workers. King wants a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. He doesn’t care how long it is. He wants it built until “they stop going around the end.”

Part of his plan is to force freshman lawmakers to take a stand on legislation he’ll be reviving in the Ways and Means Committee that directs the Obama administration to share information about illegal workers. He also is considering offering amendments to various appropriations bills that would cut funding for cities and states he thinks aren’t supporting law-enforcement efforts on illegal immigration.

By and large, whatever bills the House Republicans pass will be symbolic because they have little chance of making it through the Senate. Democrats, for their part, hope they can capitalize on what they see as the GOP’s increasingly inflexible stance.

And they have reason to be optimistic. Latinos are the fastest growing voting bloc and have been moving leftward over the past decade. In 2008, Barack Obama captured close to 70 percent of the Latino vote, and two years later Hispanics helped the Democrats hold on to the Senate by delivering winning margins for Harry Reid in Nevada and Michael Bennet in Colorado.

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A few Republicans are calling for comprehensive immigration reform—most notably former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has said the GOP will become marginalized if it doesn’t court Hispanics. The party’s tough talk about cracking down on illegal immigrants has largely alienated this expanding population.

But Gallegly, who was just reelected with 60 percent of the vote in a heavily Hispanic district, doesn’t buy the argument. “I’m known as the toughest guy in the state of California on illegal immigration,” he says. “No one ever got within 20 points of me.”

Correction: The headline of this story mistakenly referred to Peter King.

Laura Colarusso is a reporter at The Daily Beast. She previously worked as a senior news editor at Talking Points Memo. She has also written for The Boston Globe, The Star-Ledger (Newark), AOL and New Jersey Monthly Magazine.