Central Valley congressmen epitomize California GOP's immigration woes

Central Valley congressmen are caught between a Democratic president and the Republican majority

No GOP lawmaker worked harder than Rep. Devin Nunes to distance himself from the right flank of his party when it risked shutting down a crucial government agency this week to fight President Obama’s immigration policy.

In rebuking “a small group of phony conservative members who have no credible policy proposals and no political strategy,” the Tulare congressman epitomized a growing dilemma for Central Valley Republicans like him.

Like most Republicans, these GOP congressmen publicly oppose Obama’s unilateral actions to loosen immigration enforcement. But the Central Valley lawmakers have resisted their colleagues’ efforts to wage a larger battle with the president that would highlight Republican opposition to broader immigration changes favored by many Latino voters and agricultural interests in their districts.

In fact, two of Nunes’ Central Valley colleagues -- Rep. Jeff Denham of Turlock and Rep. David Valadao of Hanford -- have been among the most outspoken Republicans trying to push their party toward embracing broad immigration changes.

Their districts have among the highest proportions of Latino residents and voters in the country. Yet their party has been striking an especially harsh tone on immigration that intensified during last year’s elections, a factor that has hurt the GOP’s efforts to rebuild a brand in California that began eroding two decades ago over the very same issue. The difficulty facing Central Valley Republicans may also offer a preview for other regions of the country that still see the nation’s changing demographics in more abstract terms.

"They have a better perspective of the community than someone who represents Orange County, or someone who represent Biloxi, Miss.," said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican consultant in Los Angeles who faults the "shrill" rhetoric employed by some in his party.

Hoffenblum publishes the California Target Book, a political guide that presents Central Valley Republicans’ quandary in clear mathematical terms. Latino voter registration rose to 27% in Nunes’ district ahead of the 2014 election. The overall Latino population there is even larger, at 45%, according to the 2010 Census, suggesting Latino voter participation will only grow as more residents become eligible. In Denham's district, 26% of registered voters are Latino, while in Valadao's district, Latinos account for 54% of registered voters and 71% of residents overall.

Add to that a potent agricultural sector that depends heavily on migrant workers from south of the border, and the pressure is intense.

"It’s not just the percentage Latino in their district but the percentage in their district that are connected to immigrant labor. And when you cast that net in their district, it’s extremely wide," said Matt Barreto, cofounder of Latino Decisions, a nonpartisan polling and research firm that works with immigration rights groups. "They definitely need to forge out a new brand image for California Republicans that’s going to look a little bit different from Republicans in Georgia."

All three men joined a minority in their party who sided with Democrats in supporting a bill passed Tuesday to fund the Department of Homeland Security, which had been at risk of a Friday shutdown. GOP hard-liners in the House had pushed party leaders to insist that the agency be funded only under the condition that it halt Obama’s plans to allow nearly 5 million immigrants who crossed the border illegally to remain in the country without the threat of deportation.

Denham and Valadao were among only 10 Republicans who voted against a January bill that tied funding to stopping Obama’s plans, while also ending an existing program that has deferred deportation for 500,000 young people brought to the United States illegally as children. Nunes and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who represents a Bakersfield district where Latinos make up 21% of registered voters, voted in favor of the measure.

Nunes, who has long advocated granting legal status to more farmworkers, blamed Obama and Democrats for politicizing the immigration issue -- “pandering to Mexican American voters pure and simple.” He said the House could not have passed the broader bill demanded by Democrats but could have begun more serious debate by taking up a border security bill.

“Even though I’m for comprehensive immigration reform and always have been, the president just made it a lot harder, and he didn’t have the authority to do what he’s done,” Nunes said.

Obama’s immigration initiatives are now tied up in a court battle after a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the actions in response to a lawsuit challenging their legality.

Denham, in an interview, said he feels "very strongly that what the president has done is not only an overreach of his authority, but is unconstitutional." Yet he said the strategy employed by some of his colleagues was ironic, given that they would have taken away money from the agency that enforces border security.

Denham, who often conducts interviews with Spanish-language media and is married to the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, has been among the most vocal Republicans in expressing frustration that the House failed to take up immigration reform after the Senate passed an overhaul in 2013.

"You would expect all members to come to the table with their ideas," he said. "And this has been a frustration, to see a number of members just say 'no,' and ignore a 30-year, multigenerational problem."

Immigrant rights advocates view Central Valley Republicans with sympathy, but say the officeholders have been marginalized as the fight over immigration becomes more partisan.

"It always struck us that people like Valadao, Denham and Nunes were more interested in protecting themselves and their district than in moving the party to do the right thing," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group.

Giev Kashkooli, political and legislative director for the United Farm Workers of America, said he believed Valadao, who declined an interview request, and Denham were hamstrung by their lack of seniority as they tried to get to get the House to debate the Senate’s bill in 2013.

"David Valadao and Jeff Denham both did everything that they had power to do, with one exception, which is they both cast votes for Speaker John Boehner, who wouldn’t allow a vote," Kashkooli said. He said Nunes largely sat out the fight and that McCarthy ignored his constituents to pacify the base of his party.

"McCarthy is totally out of step with the district on this," Kashkooli said.

McCarthy's spokesman, Matt Sparks, said the immigration system was broken, but that he has always opposed a comprehensive bill to fix it and that Obama "cannot be entrusted to enforce the immigration laws previously enacted by Congress."

Tom Campbell, a former Republican congressman who is now the dean of the law school at Chapman University in Orange, said he believed voters would understand McCarthy’s need to walk a more careful line on immigration, given his leadership role, especially if he uses his power to help the local agricultural industry in other ways.

"If Kevin McCarthy works a deal on water, it will prove what I just said in 10 times fold," Campbell said.

Lobbyists for agricultural interests see immigration as a priority issue for maintaining a workforce. Even as some have grown disillusioned, they say they will continue to meet with Central Valley Republicans.

"There are plenty of Republicans around the country who don’t have a reason in their district to see this as an economic issue," said Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

"Mr. Denham and Mr. Valadao are on the right side of history on this issue," he added. "And it’s a little bit lonely."

Twitter: @noahbierman

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

3:08 p.m.: This article was updated to include comments from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).

The first version of this article was published at 11:35 a.m.

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