Darrell Issa's Tight Spot

Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on the status of the undocumented produced a united front of Republican support for legalizing those immigrants, but not allowing them to become citizens. Well, an almost united front.

As Kitty Felde of Los Angeles public radio staton KPCC reported, one GOP Committee member dissented from his peers’ halfway-house stance. Darrell Issa, the sole Republican committee member from California, told Felde that he believes the undocumented should be allowed to become citizens. “I believe that that’s the inherently American thing to do,” he said.

Issa is nobody’s idea of a Republican moderate—to the contrary, he’s a doctrinaire right-winger. As chair of the House Oversight Committee, moreover, Issa has consistently endeavored to inflate various Obama administration contretemps into full-blown scandals (Fast and Furious, Benghazi) despite the absence of supporting facts.

But Issa also represents a district that, according to the 2010 Census, is 26 percent Hispanic. And he hails from a state where long-Republican districts with growing numbers of Hispanic voters have been flipping into the Democratic column, which is precisely what happened last November in a district near his long represented by Republican Mary Bono Mack, who was unseated by Democrat Raul Ruiz.

Close to 40 House Republicans represent districts that are at least 20 percent Hispanic—though the Hispanic share of their voting populations are usually significantly smaller than that. Nonetheless, some of the House GOP’s staunchest opponents of creating a path to citizenship (and worse, voterhood) for undocumenteds come from heavily Hispanic districts. Texas Republicans Lamar Smith and Blake Farenthold, for instance, represent districts that are 28 percent and 51 percent Hispanic, respectively, and adamantly resist any notion of extending citizenship to this group of immigrants.

But that’s in Texas, where no group has waged an ambitious Hispanic voter registration or mobilization effort in years. California, on the other hand, has been home to the most far-reaching and effective such operations of any state since the mid-1990s. (One difference between the two states is that California has a vibrant labor movement that invests heavily in Hispanic voter mobilization, while Texas has virtually no labor movement at all.) Issa has seen Republican strength dwindle throughout his state precisely due to those efforts, which in the 2012 election turned not just Mack’s but three other longtime GOP-controlled congressional districts from red to blue and gave the Democrats a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the state legislature.

There are now 15 Republican House members from California, and ten of them with a higher percentage of Latino residents than Issa’s. Which is why Issa’s electoral calculation in favor of immigrant citizenship might just be one that many of his California GOP peers share. If the question before the House on immigration comes down to granting legal resident status or full citizenship to undocumenteds, and if California and a handful of Florida Republicans join a unified Democratic delegation in opting for citizenship, that would provide the requisite 218 votes—assuming that House Speaker John Boehner is willing to put such a measure on the floor without the backing of a majority of the Republican caucus. I doubt he will—which will stir completely justifiable anti-Republican anger among Latino voters, and likely cost them still more congressional seats in California. Precisely what Darrell Issa wants to avoid. 


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