By Scott Shafer
Members of Calfornia's Congressional delegation will likely be important voices on an issue President Obama promises to make one of his top priorities in the second term: immigration.
"I mean we’ve got husbands and wives are separated for half a decade," says San Jose Democrat Zoe Lofgren. "That’s not acceptable. So we need to reform the system for economy and for families."
Lofgren sits on a House Judiciary Subcommittee, where immigration will soon get a hearing. She is meeting with a Florida Republican behind closed doors, hoping to find common ground they can take to their House colleagues.
"Certainly there’s a policy reason for reforming immigration laws," Lofgren says. "It’s a mess from top to bottom, but now there’s a political imperative on the Republican side."
President George W. Bush supported immigration reform but was stymied by his own party. Republicans voiced strong objections to offering what they called "amnesty" for people who came here illegally. But the November election - and Latino voters’ overwhelming support for President Obama - was a wakeup call for Republicans.
Eliseo Medina is Secretary Treasurer with SEIU, the union that spearheaded Mi Familia Vota, a non-partisan effort to mobilize Latino voters in last year’s election.
"It is no longer a question of whether we’re going to have immigration reform. That’s been settled, Medina says. "Now we’re just having a conversation about when, and what does it look like?"
Working with Spanish language media, the campaign energized Latinos to vote in numbers much higher than many - including the Republican Party - expected. It cost Mitt Romney the electio, and the SEIU’s Medina says it was a political earthquake in Washington.
"I tell you I have never in my 47 years as an organizer seen politicians change so quickly," says Medina. "I mean they changed on a dime."
This week, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a rising star from Florida, told talk show host Bill O’Reilly his ideas for addressing illegal immigration.
"You have to come forward. You have to be finger-printed, background-checked for national security and crimes," he explained. "You have to pay back taxes, you have to pay fines, you have to have been here for a significant period of time, know English and be assimilated. And if you do all of those things, what you get is a work permit, basically. A legal status, not a green card, to allow you to be in this country legally and to work.”
Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, endorsed Rubio’s approach, saying the time for immigration reform is now.
Medina cut his organizing teeth with farmworker and activist Cesar Chavez. And now it’s the agriculture groups that are pressuring Republicans to act.
Ken Barbic, director of government affairs for the Western Growers Association, says a California Farm Bureau survey of farmers found how dire the labor situation is
"Sixty percent of respondents across commodity groups said they had experienced worker shortages," Barbic explains. "Seventy percent in more labor-intensive fruit and vegetable operations."
Barbic’s group endorsed Romney for President. He too sees the Republican Party’s urgency for moderating its message on immigration.
"They’re finally saying, 'hey, we need to address this in a rational way,'" he says, "'or we’re going to continue to be alienating a group of potential voters who would agree with the Republican Party on most other issues.'”
But just how far will Republicans go, especially on the critical issue of citizenship? Emboldened by the November election results, Democrats and their allies will insist on nothing short of offering full citizenship for people who came here illegally. Republicans may balk at that.
Freshman Republican Doug LaMalfa represents the First Congressional District in far northern California, around Redding and Chico. The fourth generation rice farmer feels the U.S. has sent mixed signals to immigrants, toughening up the border but allowing them to work if they sneak in. LaMalfa seems to be open to a middle ground solution.
"The public picture of a mass deportation is not going to happen, OK?" says LaMalfa. "It’s not going to work. It’s not practical. It would be very ugly and it’s not what we’re about.
But LaMalfa says an immediate or easy path to citizenship would be a slap in the face to those who came here legally. He acknowledges that his party must compete with Democrats for Latino votes, especially in places like California. On the other hand…
"If they think we’re going to become the benefit party," LaMalfa says, "the one giving away the treasury, then we can never outdo the Democrats on that. Because (A), we shouldn’t and (B), if we propose something then the Dems can double it."
The issue of citizenship may be the toughest nut to crack. Freshman Democrat Raul Ruiz, the ER doc whose parents were migrant farm workers in the Coachella Valley, says anything short of full legal rights just isn’t good enough.
"Because then it’s saying, 'you know, we want you to work in our low-paying, high-risk, dangerous jobs, but you can’t become a citizen,'" says Ruiz.
While solving the problem won’t be easy, it does seem the political stars are aligning in Washington, making this the best chance of enacting comprehensive immigration reform in more than two decades.