House Republican Whip Is Target of Immigration-Reform Advocates in California

Rebecca Kaplan
National Journal

No Republican has received more public pressure from immigration advocates over the recess than House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California. In a show of force Wednesday, thousands of activists rolled into McCarthy's Bakersfield-area district. Their demands: A vote on an immigration-reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States. And they want the vote by Sept. 30.

They carried cantaloupes (in a nod to anti-amnesty crusader Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who said most young illegal immigrants had calves the size of the melon from hauling drugs), American flags, and signs warning of dire electoral consequences for the GOP if the party doesn't support immigration reform.

Before the recess, advocates for citizenship had identified McCarthy—whose district has a 35 percent Hispanic population and a significant agricultural presence—as the best way to influence House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "He can do a lot to convince Boehner to allow a vote" on legislation that includes citizenship, Eliseo Medina of the Service Employees International Union said in July.

But even as the third-ranking member of the House GOP leadership comes squarely in the crosshairs of the activists, it's unclear whether McCarthy will accede to their demands. Last week during an event in Newport Beach, he backed some form of legal status for undocumented immigrants but stopped short of allowing citizenship, according to The Daily Pilot.

"I personally believe it's different for someone who's been here 30 years than if they've been here three months," McCarthy said, suggesting people could work toward legal status by paying a penalty. Children, on the other hand, were "different," he said. "This is your country. You have no other place to go."

Organizers of the Bakersfield rally estimated that 5,000 people attended, including many who arrived in what they described as the largest caravan in California history. Bakersfield police, however, estimated the crowd at 1,500.

McCarthy's response to the rally, issued through a spokesman, was polite but noncommittal. "I think that it is always healthy to have a dialogue on the important issues of the day, and I welcome folks coming to visit Bakersfield," he said. "While I have met with many groups across the spectrum of the immigration reform debate, in the end, I value the input of my constituents in the 23rd Congressional District most. I have long said that our immigration system is broken, but rather than take up the Senate bill, the House will move in a step-by-step approach that first secures the border."

Many in the GOP have coalesced around the idea of treating the children of illegal immigrants with more leniency. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., are working on a bill that would address that issue, though no House members have offered up legislation dealing with the rest of the estimated 11 million in the undocumented population.

Still, activists in favor of comprehensive legislation have portrayed the recess so far as a success, picking up a few Republican supporters since members left town in early August. At an immigration panel earlier this week, Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., described the 13-year pathway to citizenship in the Senate bill as "reasonable" because it requires background checks, fines, back taxes, employment, and proficiency in English. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., said in a radio interview that when it comes to immigrants in the country illegally, "I want to hold them accountable, and then they get citizenship."

Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., told the Orlando Sentinel that he would support citizenship as long as it had several preconditions: a 90 percent apprehension rate of those trying to enter illegally, a nationwide E-Verify system, and allowing state and local authorities to enforce immigration law—an idea that has been met with fierce resistance from Democrats.

Immigration does not appear to have dominated town halls with the same intensity that the health care law did in the summer of 2009. Still, some lawmakers have been pushed to take a stance on the issue.

Asked for his opinion on a pathway to citizenship at a town-hall meeting, Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., said, "I think there needs to be a secure border, and I think when that happens and people have paid their back taxes and they haven't committed any violation of laws, they've been here on a probationary period, then they can apply for citizenship and go to the back of the line." Steve Dutton, a spokesman for Schock, underlined that his boss did not use the phrase "pathway to citizenship," but is interested in legislation that address all aspects of the immigration system.

On a smaller scale, groups who oppose any form of legalization have launched a "Stop Amnesty Tour" that began with an event in Richmond, Va., earlier this week—a stone's throw away from Cantor's district. Representatives from NumbersUSA and Tea Party Patriots were joined by Iowa's Steve King, whose comments last month suggesting most young illegal immigrants were drug smugglers became a pain for the GOP leadership and a P.R. blessing for those seeking to paint Republicans as being held hostage by a vocal minority. More events on immigration reform are being planned for Harrisburg, Pa.; Dallas; Toledo, Ohio; and South Carolina.