Central Valley Republicans want immigration reform despite speaker's promise

Two Central Valley Republicans say that newly selected House Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision not to focus on immigration reform while Barack Obama is president won’t stop them from trying.

Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) and David Valadao (R-Hanford) have been among the most outspoken members of their party pushing for comprehensive immigration overhaul.

“It’s time to have a full debate,” Denham said Friday.

But the speaker has pledged to hold off — an olive branch to members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who have balked at his past support for measures to provide a path to citizenship and increase the number of foreign-worker visas.

In a private meeting with the caucus before his election, Ryan secured its backing by agreeing to delay action on immigration. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) entered a letter with the details of the understanding into the Congressional record Tuesday.

The document boils down Ryan’s conversation with Freedom Caucus members to two points:

“It is unwise or unproductive to bring up any immigration legislation so long as Barack Obama is president.” And “as Speaker, you will not allow any immigration bill to reach the House floor for a vote unless the immigration bill is supported by a 'majority of the majority' of Republican House Members.”

“I need your assurance that you will not use the Speaker's position to advance your immigration policies, except when in accord with the two above statements, because there is a huge gap between your immigration position and the wishes of the American citizens I represent,” the letter states.

That informal practice of not putting legislation forward that isn't supported by a majority within the GOP-controlled House is known as the “Hastert rule,” after former Speaker Dennis J. Hastert (R-Ill.)

Ryan since has reiterated that position publicly, telling the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday that there would be no broad push on immigration reform this year or next.

 “I think it would be ridiculous to try to attempt immigration reform with a president we simply cannot trust, so I don't think that that's in the cards for this Congress — outside of things that we do agree on, like border and interior enforcement,” Ryan said.

Denham said that he doesn’t expect the Freedom Caucus will be able to block immigration policy changes in perpetuity, especially if they abide by the Hastert policy.

They have “done a good job of talking about regular order and following the rules,” said Denham, who was among the 14 California House Republicans who supported Ryan. “Well, by that very example, then, issues of immigration should be able to come up as well,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

In fact, the Caucus has asked Ryan for a rule change that would make it harder for committee chairmen to keep legislation they don’t like from making to a floor vote if it is supported by the majority of Republicans.

Denham’s ENLIST Act — which would allow people brought to the United States illegally as children before 2011 to become lawful alien residents if they complete a term of military service — has been sitting in the Armed Services Committee since April.

“I am confident that we have a majority of the majority on the ENLIST Act, and I’m going to push forward,” he said.

Valadao, whose district is 71% Latino, said Ryan’s commitment to the House Caucus also isn’t going to stop him from trying to change the country’s immigration system.

“Do I expect a full bill? No, there’s not a lot of trust between the conference and the president, and so that puts us in a bad position,” he said. But “we’re obviously going to continue to work … and hope to get something done, at least some common sense stuff.”

California House Democrats also were upset by the news that Ryan doesn’t plan to act on immigration without support from a majority of Republicans.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier) said she initially thought reform would be more likely under Ryan’s leadership.

“Clearly we are disappointed, because he has been an advocate in the past — not just because it’s the right immigration policy but, from the tax side, he understands what a benefit to the community comprehensive immigration reform would be,” said Sanchez, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairwoman.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) said he doesn’t expect Republicans to be able to keep changes to the country’s immigration system from happening.

“Paul Ryan is going to stop immigration from coming up the way he can stop the sun from rising,” Becerra said. “For any leader in the House to say: ‘We’re not going to bring immigration up’ — when we know we need to — is essentially capitulating to the extreme forces in the party,” he said.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

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