Immigration issue a challenge for suburban congressmen

Posted: July 10, 2013

WASHINGTON - As the national debate on immigration reform moves to the House, Republican congressmen from the Philadelphia suburbs are again in the middle of a cultural tug-of-war.

On the right, their more conservative GOP colleagues have vowed to oppose anything that sounds like "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants.

On the left, labor, Hispanic, and faith-based groups are pushing local House Republicans to provide the key votes for the most controversial aspect of the Senate plan: a pathway to citizenship.

The House's GOP majority has a critical meeting scheduled for Wednesday to air members' views on the issue. The reform push is in their hands after the Senate approved a bipartisan immigration overhaul, with 68 out of 100 votes, late last month.

Local Republicans so far are staking out moderate positions, though emphasizing that they want to see the final House package, which GOP leaders have said will be different than the Senate's.

Some Republicans from the region said they would consider granting some form of legalized status to undocumented immigrants, though none took a firm position while awaiting the final House plan.

"It's within my contemplation that we've got to figure out some kind of earned legal status for people who are here," said U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan of Delaware County. "It's impractical to assume that we're going to move 12 million people out of our borders."

Meehan, a former U.S. attorney and a member of the homeland security committee, said he wanted to see tough security measures first, to limit illegal immigration and also prevent terrorists from entering the country. But he also said there needed to be more certainty for those who follow the immigration laws, and he expressed sympathy for people who came here illegally but are striving for a better life.

"It's a life of hell for people who are illegally trying to work," Meehan said.

Resolving their status, he said, "is important so that people who are good people, who are trying to work and contribute . . . don't have to fear being pulled over by a police car" and having their lives uprooted.

Within a district that reaches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Delaware River, U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), represents tourism-based businesses at the Shore and farmers in Cumberland County, who both rely on immigrant labor. Latinos make up 15 percent of his district, according to the census.

LoBiondo said border security requirements "have to be airtight" and that he was in a "circling pattern" as the House crafts its plan. But he expressed hope for a bipartisan answer.

"If it's the president's bill only, if it's a Republican bill only, this will not work," LoBiondo said.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.), whose Lehigh Valley district includes one of the largest Hispanic concentrations in Pennsylvania, said he was "very open" to a pathway to "lawful status" and citizenship.

"I understand that there's not a humane way to deport 11 million people who are in this country unlawfully," Dent said. "That said, we're going to have to deal with this issue comprehensively."

He suggested that children brought here illegally and people who overstayed visas might be treated differently from those who entered the country illegally.

A sweeping immigration overhaul could affect millions of people living here illegally, as well as plans for tougher security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Many conservatives see a road to citizenship as a reward for lawbreaking and a potential drain on taxpayers and public services, and worry that promised security measures will never be implemented.

U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.) has said he will oppose "anything that remotely resembles amnesty," and U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador (R., Idaho) said Sunday on Meet the Press that a flawed bill could "be the death" of the GOP.

Others, though, contend Republicans can't win a national election without making inroads with Hispanics.

"If the House doesn't deal with it, there may be a political price to pay," Dent said. "I don't think that price will be paid uniformly across the board. It'll affect some members more than others."

Few GOP House members' districts have large concentrations of Hispanics. In the three Republican-held congressional districts based in Bucks, Delaware and Chester Counties, Hispanics make up less than 5 percent of the population.

In Dent's Allentown-based district, on the other hand, 13 percent of residents are Hispanic.

Still, liberal groups are pressing the case locally, planning a rally in Bucks County on Tuesday to pressure U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.), as well as events targeting Meehan and U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R., Pa.) of Chester County.

Faith-based groups have met with LoBiondo and his staff, and have spoken with U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.). They have stressed the importance of keeping families together and a route to legal status, said Carlos Rojas, an organizer for the state chapter of People Improving Communities through Organizing.

They have held prayer vigils at LoBiondo's office, arranged meetings with immigrants, and sent postcards urging him to back a pathway to citizenship.

Republican House leaders have said they won't bring up the far-reaching Senate bill and will instead take a piece-by-piece approach. A staunchly conservative bloc might support tougher security measures but stop any road to legalization - a key provision for President Obama and the liberal wing of the coalition supporting reform plans.

But Democrats believe the broad support for the Senate bill could sway Republicans - particularly with the help of religious and business groups.

"Eventually, I think you get comprehensive immigration reform," said U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.). "There are enough constituencies that can communicate effectively with Republican members."


Contact Jonathan Tamari at jtamari@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog 'Capitol Inq' at www.inquirer.com/capitolinq.

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