WASHINGTON (AP) – Republican Rep. David Valadao says he's not worried that Congress' failure to pass immigration legislation will hurt his prospects for re-election to a district in California's agricultural heartland. Same goes for GOP Rep. Jeff Denham, who represents a neighboring district in the state's San Joaquin Valley.
Still, the California congressmen are making sure voters know they support an immigration overhaul. They're aware that Democrats will try to turn the congressional gridlock into an advantage during this year's midterm elections.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $300,000 on television ads in Valadao's district, noting that he is the son of immigrants. Denham highlights an award he received from the nation's largest Latino advocacy group for "putting sound immigration policy over party politics." He was the first Republican co-sponsor of a sweeping immigration bill now stalled in the House.
"People have seen I've shown real leadership in driving this issue forward," Denham said.
Sounding a lot like Democrats, some Republican members of California's congressional delegation are making the case that changing the law is necessary to help farmers and businesses and to keep families together. But they also are members of a party that has stifled immigration-overhaul efforts, providing a political opening for Democrats in a state where immigrants are a crucial underpinning of the economy.
A recent national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that about 7 in 10 Hispanics say it's important that new immigration legislation pass this year. And a California Field Poll last year found that 9 in 10 California voters support allowing immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to stay and become citizens if they work, learn English and pay back taxes.
Valadao, Denham and about a dozen other Republican lawmakers nationally are in districts that have a sizeable and growing Latino population. Latinos make up more than half of the registered voters in Valadao's district and about a quarter in Denham's.
Immigration also could play a role in a handful of open seats around the country, including those in Southern California now held by outgoing Republican Reps. Gary Miller and Buck McKeon. Latino voters make up a third of the electorate in Miller's district, and 1 in 5 voters in McKeon's. Democrats have made both seats a priority.
Valadao and Denham are in competitive districts and are targets for Democrats, who need to win 17 seats to win control of the House.
"My constituents understand I've been in the middle of it," Valadao said. "I've been vocal. I've signed onto legislation. I continue to put pressure on the leadership."
Democrats are questioning just how dedicated Valadao and Denham are, noting they declined to sign a petition that would have forced House Speaker John Boehner to schedule a vote on an immigration bill. No Republican joined the effort.
"They pay lip service to comprehensive immigration reform, but they refuse to lift a pen to sign the discharge petition to force a vote," said Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Valadao's opponents also cite his 2011 vote while he served in the state Assembly that opposed the California Dream Act, which allows immigrants in California without legal permission to get privately funded scholarships to attend the state's public universities. Another provision allows immigrants to qualify for state financial aid to attend college.
"If there's anything that affects the kids in the Central Valley, the undocumented dreamers in the Central Valley, it's the California Dream Act that he opposed," said Amanda Renteria, Valadao's chief Democratic opponent.
Valadao spokeswoman Anna Vetter said the congressman voted against the legislation because he believes immigration is a federal issue. Further, he supports a path to citizenship for the so-called dreamers, she said.
Next week, Denham plans to introduce an amendment that would allow people to enlist in the armed forces as a way to become legal permanent residents, a move House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promises to block.
"There are those of us who have to do a greater job of championing and being vocal on the issue," Denham said. "My concern is that there is a very vocal minority in our conference that likes to say crazy and outlandish things that get picked up by the media."
Denham's leading Democratic opponent, almond farmer Michael Eggman, said it would be better for Democrats to control the House if voters want immigration reform. He said the GOP leadership will not bring up an overhaul bill unless it's forced to, as the failed petition would have done.
"If you don't sign the petition, you're really not committed to immigration reform," Eggman said.
Denham said he wants to work through the committee process while Valadao calls the petition a stunt.
Even if the California Republicans say they support changes to immigration law, Israel said it signals a lack of effectiveness that they can't get more Republicans to join them. Denham and Valadao counter that an immigration overhaul didn't happen even when Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2008-09.