California seen as vital as businesses push GOP on immigration overhaul

Bee Washington BureauJuly 28, 2013 

— As a comprehensive immigration overhaul appears stuck, for the moment, in the House of Representatives, an influential coalition is betting that members of Congress from California can break the logjam.

Prominent Republicans and their traditional allies in the business community frame an immigration overhaul as crucial to the economy and the long-term prospects of the party. And they are waging an educational campaign to encourage California lawmakers to lead the way.

"It's an issue that attracts a lot of emotions, and we want to make sure people have the facts," said California Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Allan Zaremberg.

Last week, CalChamber began a public push for a House vote on a bipartisan bill the Senate approved last month. And because Republicans are in the majority, CalChamber's effort is focused on the state's 15 GOP lawmakers in the House.

Zaremberg said there's "no question that Republicans are a target" of the chamber's efforts. "They have the opportunity to have a great deal of influence," he said. "If you're a Republican and you care about jobs and the economy, it's important for you to understand the consequences."

The Senate in June approved a bipartisan bill that would increase funding for border security, create a guest-worker program and establish a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally. But when, and how, the effort moves forward depends on the House Republicans, where there is considerably more resistance.

"Some people might not see immediate impact in their district," said Ruben Barrales, a former aide to President George W. Bush who's working to attract more Latino voters to the Republican Party. "I hope they'll understand the bigger picture."

'Amnesty' for people who broke the law?

The 38 House Democrats from California are largely united on immigration, but Republicans are all over the map. At one end of the spectrum, Central Valley Republican Reps. Jeff Denham, David Valadao and Devin Nunes represent districts with large percentages of Latino voters, as well as an agricultural economy that depends on migrant workers. They've been more receptive to an immigration bill along the lines of what the Senate approved.

At the other end, hard-liners such as Reps. Tom McClintock, Dana Roh-rabacher and Duncan Hunter have shown little willingness to budge. They have consistently opposed what they call "amnesty" for people who broke the law.

Some Republicans, such as Reps. Gary Miller and Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, appear to be on the fence.

"I appreciate that people have policy differences," Barrales said. "We need to set the right policy."

California is home to nearly a quarter of the 11 million people estimated to be living without documentation in the country.

CalChamber and more than 40 local chambers of commerce — including Turlock's — wrote in a letter to members of Congress last week that resolving the immigration status of 2.6 million California residents would unlock billions of dollars of consumer spending and investment, and help the state recover from the lingering effects of the recession.

'It will bring finality to the issue'

Mike Lynch, speaking for the Turlock Chamber of Commerce board of directors, said the group is 100 percent behind comprehensive immigration reform and believes it would be a great help for the Central Valley.

"It will regularize the employment situation," he said. "It will bring finality to the issue for people who are hiring people. Bring certainty to workers. Take the burden of legal or illegal away. It appropriately recognizes people who have made years and years of investments in the community by working here and raising children here. It corrects the imbalance. All of which will reverberate for the betterment of our society, not just our economy."

Zaremberg said the state needs the right combination of high- and low-skilled workers for its economy to flourish, and that a comprehensive immigration overhaul would help that happen. "It's more significant to California's economy than darn near any other state," he said.

The U.S. chamber supports the approach, as do many conservative leaders, from the younger Bush to small-government advocate Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

"All these people recognize this is a serious moment of consciousness for the party," said Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, an associate professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCLA.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland contributed to this report.

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