August recess will be no vacation for House members hoping to escape from the pressure of the looming battle over immigration reform. With a Senate bill passed and House Speaker John Boehner planning a vote on some form of immigration legislation before the end of the year, the five-week August break presents the last chance for activists on both sides of the issue to sway undecided or undeclared lawmakers to their way of thinking.
Add to that the potential for televised town-hall freakouts reminiscent of the health-care protests in August 2009, and all involved know this August is make or break for the future of immigration policy for the next 20 years.
At the center of the five-week lobbying and influence effort are 37 House Republicans whose districts are more than 20 percent Latino, including Reps. Darrell Issa, Buck McKeon, Steve Pearce, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
McCarthy’s district, in the agriculture-heavy Central Valley of California, is 35.5 percent Latino, leading advocates to believe he could not only vote with them but also bring others along.
“We think he’s open to persuasion, but he’s not going to just open his doors and say, ‘Welcome, everybody, I’ve changed my mind,” said Jorge Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
“We’re going to have to be there and show up in strong numbers and make an appeal directly to him.”
“Showing up” for Cabrera and his group means driving a 1,100-car caravan past McCarthy’s Bakersfield office on Aug. 15 to press the whip to vote for comprehensive reform. Like CHIRLA, a large pro-reform coalition is planning more than 350 events around the country over the recess targeting House Republicans they see as potential yes votes—the 37 Latino-heavy GOP districts as well as those in swing districts, like Reps. Mike Coffman in Colorado and Joe Heck in Nevada.
In addition to sending members to town hall meetings, the coalition is planning rallies, neighborhood canvassing, Spanish language social media ads, and earned and paid media to push individual House members to hold a vote on immigration reform.
“We are working to create the space for what I call the ‘coalition of the willing,’” said Clarissa Martínez-De-Castro from the National Council of La Raza, another member of the coalition. “We will be in the districts, helping people perform brain surgery so that they can see the light when they get back.”
Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said August will be part of “a long, hot summer” for members of the House. “Speaker Boehner and the Republicans in the House are in for a big surprise because we are ready to welcome them when they come home,” he said. “We will be pounding the drums for reform.”
But pro-reform groups won’t have the stage to themselves. Groups opposed to comprehensive reform, including Numbers USA and local and national Tea Party groups, are pushing the same undecided Republicans to focus on jobs for Americans, not work visas and citizenship for immigrants. They also are planning to hold rallies, send their members to town hall meetings, and encourage them to call, email, and Facebook congressmen who have not said for sure how they’ll vote on immigration reform.
While no anti-reform group would share its whip lists, a strategist who asked not to be identified said the targeted lawmakers “will become obvious” and said House Republicans generally break into three camps. “People opposed and solid, people for and solid, and others who just want to do something.” The strategist continued, “The ones who just want to do something, the ones who want the issue to go away, those are the dangerous people. Those are always the worst, the non-believers.”
With so many members uncommitted, it’s hard to say who among House Republicans is a believer or a nonbeliever. But the demographic realities of House members are stark for pro-reform activists. For every one of the 37 Republicans who represents a district with more than 20 percent Latino population, six do not. As the country as a whole is becoming significantly more diverse, House Republicans’ districts have become whiter, thanks to 2012 redistricting that carved 6.6 million minorities, including about 2 million Latinos, out of Republican districts. In states like Texas, where a number of the Republican districts have large Latino populations, more conservative white voters participate in Republican primaries.
“Latino voters simply aren’t a danger to Republican control of the House,” said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report. “That’s a harsh reality for people looking for comprehensive immigration reform.”
But Wasserman said other factors could drive House Republicans to support comprehensive reform, especially those in swing districts.
“Republicans who are vulnerable to the most blowback for opposing reform aren’t the ones in Latino districts, they are in white districts where liberal voters don’t want to vote for someone they perceive as out of touch,” he said.
On a larger scale, Wasserman said immigration reform is part of the war among Republicans over the future of both their party and the country.
“There is a tug of war between House Republicans who care about 2014 and national Republicans who care about 2016,” he said. “There are two completely different sets of priorities, and immigration is the perfect example of that.”