Rep. Jeff Denham told an audience of supporters in Ceres on Sunday that he has had some criticism from within his own district after recently becoming the first Republican to formally endorse a comprehensive immigration-reform bill introduced by House Democrats.
But a lot of criticism is coming in the form of phone calls to his office from people outside his district.
So Denham wants those who support his stance on immigration to do the same.
He asked a few hundred people gathered at St. Jude’s Catholic Church to call the offices of those in the House of Representatives who don’t support comprehensive immigration reform and ask them why.
“If we work together in this next month and a half, we can get it done,” Denham told the audience.
His visit to Ceres was one of three stops in Stanislaus County on Sunday.
He met with faith-based groups, discussing immigration reform and his support of the House bill.
Modesto-based Congregations Building Community organized the Ceres event.
The organization has worked to galvanize support for a law that would provide an opportunity for U.S. citizenship for millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally.
Reps. David Valadao of Hanford and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida are the two other Republicans who have since joined Denham, publicly announcing their support of the bill.
It is similar to a Senate bill passed in June.
The House bill includes a pathway to legal status and, potentially, U.S. citizenship for immigrants.
It includes myriad other provisions, including border-security measures, an agricultural worker program and employment verification.
Divisions within party
Some California Republicans in Congress have said an overhaul of immigration laws is important to the state’s economy and the GOP’s future.
But others oppose what they consider “amnesty” for lawbreakers, underscoring the difficulty of moving such a bill through the GOP-controlled House.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, the senior California Republican in Congress, said Friday that granting legal status to millions of immigrants in the country illegally would “destroy our party.”
Denham said in Ceres on Sunday that the proposed bill by no means makes it easy for immigrants to gain citizenship.
He said there is a 13-year process with application fees and tough background checks, ensuring that applicants have paid back taxes and have not been convicted of crimes, among other requirements.
“But it’s a workable process,” Denham said. “It’ll give hope to people. It will keep families together.”
Jennifer Romero, 22, of Aurora, Colo., said she hopes the proposed bill will be passed and bring her family back together again.
“I haven’t been able to see my mom in six years,” she said.
Her mother, Janice Romero, entered the country illegally.
She hasn’t been able to return to the U.S. after she visited her gravely ill parents in Guererro, Mexico.
“They were really sick, and she wanted to see them again before they died,” she said about her mother, who has since been denied twice for a visa to enter the U.S.
Romero said her father lives in a lonely home without his wife, and her younger sisters, now 15 and 18, have grown up without their mom.
She and others from outside Denham’s district traveled to Ceres to share their stories and show their support for the Republican from Turlock.
They hope to push representatives in their own congressional districts to join Denham in backing the House bill.
Miguel Herrera is a 23-year-old Fresno State University political-science student from Tulare County.
He told Denham about his friend Christian Jimenez.
They grew up together, going to some of the same schools. They spent their first year out of high school working in the area’s peach orchards.
Herrera said his friend was captured in an immigration raid in 2009 while walking out of a store after work in Orosi, a small town just north of Visalia.
His friend was deported, and he hasn’t seen him since.
“I have witnessed the struggle of undocumented people,” Herrera told Denham. “That was a life ruined. He wanted a better future for himself.”
Gloria Sanchez of Congregations Building Community stood up and thanked Denham for being the first Republican in the House to support the bill.
She asked the congressman to gather members of his party who told their constituents that they would support a pathway to citizenship.
“In H.R. 15, there is a way to support a path to citizenship, and now is the time to support it,” Sanchez said of the bill.
Denham assured Sanchez that his office has held meetings with House members to galvanize support for comprehensive reform, and they have another meeting scheduled soon.
He said he and other members have walked around the House floor, looking for signatures to a letter asking Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to schedule a vote soon.
Timing is tricky
Denham said the biggest challenge to pass the reform bill is timing.
His fear is that the House will not schedule a vote before the end of the year, and that other issues such as the national debt ceiling and funding the federal government will push immigration reform to the back burner next year.
“We need a vote on immigration reform, and we need it now,” Denham said.
Herrera said he fears that the reform bill will be pushed off much longer, so it can be used as an issue in the next presidential race.
Denham said he has spoken to Republicans in the House and asked them what they don’t like about the bill, hoping they can discuss their concerns and work together on passing the legislation.
“But don’t just say no” is Denham’s message to House Republicans. “Help us to get you to say yes.”