House GOP's immigration stance could help -- or maybe hurt -- Valadao

The Fresno BeeFebruary 1, 2014 

Rep. David Valadao

THE FRESNO BEE

Last fall, Republican congressman David Valadao of Hanford signed on as a co-sponsor of an immigration bill introduced by House Democrats, one that included a potential pathway to U.S. citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.

Now, House leaders from Valadao's own party have released a set of immigration principles, one that offers the potential of legal status for undocumented immigrants -- but prescribes no special pathway to citizenship.

Valadao thinks both proposals are flawed, but they are movements in a positive direction, according to Tal Eslick, the congressman's chief of staff. So Valadao will remain as a co-sponsor of the Democratic-backed legislation, while he'll keep tabs on how his own party's broadly worded proposal takes shape.

"At least we are moving the conversation forward," Eslick said.

There is a lot on the line for Valadao. His immigration position is important, not only for the health of his agricultural-based district -- which has a large number of undocumented immigrants and farms and ranches that rely on that labor pool -- but also because the freshman congressman is facing a competitive re-election bid.

Registered Democrats in the 21st District -- which covers all of Kings and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties -- outnumber Republicans by 15 percentage points. It's a district that has gone for both President Barack Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown in past elections.

Just as important, it is 72% Hispanic. That Hispanic super-majority is the second highest in the nation for a congressional district represented by a Republican. And immigration reform is a key issue to that constituency.

So far, two Democrats are challenging Valadao. The top two finishers in the three-person June 3 primary will move on to a November general election showdown.

John Hernandez, one of those two Democrats, said Valadao can't be trusted on immigration reform.

"He's wearing a mask now, trying to fool people," said Hernandez, who lost to Valadao in 2012 and is seeking a rematch this year. "He only wants a farm-labor program."

The other, Amanda Renteria -- who left her job as a Capitol Hill staffer to return to the Valley and challenge Valadao -- said her opponent "likes to talk about comprehensive immigration reform, but he's part of a stubborn Republican Party in Washington led by (House Speaker) John Boehner that opposes a pathway to citizenship."

But political expert Marc Sandalow, who is associate academic director of the University of California's Washington Center and author of "Madam Speaker: Nancy Pelosi's Life, Times and Rise to Power," said Republican release of the "immigration principles" helps Valadao.

"It makes his party seem less evil to people in the district," Sandalow said.

In addition, he said Valadao can support both the Democratic immigration bill and the Republican statement without any political damage. Valadao can say he's for a path to citizenship -- which he is, Eslick says -- but also say he's supportive of legal status if the push for citizenship fails, Sandalow said.

"It doesn't have to be one or the other for him," Sandalow said. "I would think this is great news for him. I think he'll be thrilled by this."

Another plus for Valadao is the response from immigrant-rights groups. Some greeted the Republican statement with cautious optimism, while key congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama said it was an indication some sort of immigration deal might be in the offing -- even though conservative members of Congress oppose any such legislation.

"Dave's not concerned at all with the vehicle," Eslick said of any immigration legislation. "GOP or Democrat, 10 little bills or one big one. He wants to address the whole program. He could care less about who gets credit."

But both Hernandez and Renteria point to his "no" vote on the California Dream Act as proof that his commitment to immigration reform might not be sincere. The legislation paved the way for more undocumented immigrant students to enter the state's universities and community colleges by allowing them to apply for and receive state grants, university scholarships and fee waivers.

"All of our children deserve the opportunity to get a good education," Renteria said. "They deserve a representative who will fight for them all of the time -- not just in an election year."

What eventually happens is hard to predict, Sandalow said. Political trouble could arise if the debate becomes one of legal status vs. actual citizenship.

"Valadao needs to make sure that he's on the side of immigrants," he said, "and it may turn out that legal status is enough."

If that is the case, Sandalow said, it could have an added bonus -- a ready labor pool with legal status would help the agriculture industry and calm the nerves of residents fearing deportation. But, because they wouldn't be citizens, they wouldn't be able to vote. Latino voters generally favor Democrats.

Because many Hispanics, at least until now, have felt more at home in the Democratic Party, such a development could help Valadao hold his seat in the November election.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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