Immigration-Bill Pressure Backfires

Published on December 30th, 2013

Overhaul Backers Target Majority Whip, but Tactic Provokes Response From Opponents

By Laura Meckler
Dec. 25, 2013
The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Supporters of an immigration overhaul, looking for allies in the Republican-led House, concluded months ago that a top prospect would be Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy

His California district is 37% Hispanic. It is dominated by big farms that rely on immigrant labor. Mr. McCarthy has strong ties to Silicon Valley, where companies are eager for more high-tech visas. His perch as No. 3 House Republican gives him a voice in leadership and sway over what legislation comes to the floor.

But an aggressive campaign to win his support appears to have backfired. People who have talked to him say Mr. McCarthy is less inclined to support an overhaul after protests at his district office by overhaul backers that, in turn, provoked counter-protests and TV ads from opponents of the legislation.

People familiar with House GOP discussions say that Mr. McCarthy hasn't used his leadership position to press for moving immigration bills through the House, which adjourned for the year without taking any votes on immigration.

In an interview, Mr. McCarthy said pressure from overhaul advocates was counterproductive. "If they continue their tactics, it's less likely they're helpful in solving the problem,'' he said. "They are less likely to have my ear."

The difficulty in winning over Mr. McCarthy, with his immigrant-dependent district, shows the steep challenge that immigration activists face as they push the House to pass legislation resisted by powerful voices in the Republican Party.

Activists have staged protests around the country, gone for weeks without food, organized prayer vigils and pressed their case in meetings with top Republicans. Pleas have come from immigrants, priests, CEOs, police officers and Republican donors. So far, none of it has worked.

In the interview, Mr. McCarthy said he would like the House to vote on immigration legislation next year. But he hasn't laid out a plan for doing so.

Mr. McCarthy's reluctance to take a leading role on immigration comes as other GOP leaders are giving mixed signals about whether legislation will move forward. House Speaker John Boehner said in November that Republicans would develop "principles" to guide legislation, a step many read as a delay tactic. But he also recently hired a well-respected immigration-policy expert for his staff. Some lawmakers say that with a number of incumbents now facing primary challenges, prospects for legislation will rise once the bulk of the primary elections are completed in the spring.

Mr. McCarthy sends mixed messages about his own views. He says the border must be secured before anything else and, like many House Republicans, he doesn't support the Senate provision that would allow many illegal-immigrant adults to gain citizenship.

At the same time, he supports most other elements of the Senate's comprehensive bill, at least in broad strokes, including a guest-worker program and more visas for high-skilled engineers. He also supports a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and legal status for many other illegal immigrants.

At the start of 2013, attention focused on the Senate, where a bipartisan group was writing and then moving legislation. But advocates of the bill knew the tougher lift was the Republican-controlled House, and they began to identify potential allies.

They put Mr. McCarthy at the top of the list.

"No one has the combination of power in the House and a district with as much at stake in the immigration legislation as Kevin McCarthy," said Giev Kashkooli, vice president of the United Farm Workers, whose national headquarters sit in Mr. McCarthy's Bakersfield-area district.

The labor union and other advocates staged a series of events aimed at pressuring Mr. McCarthy. In June and July, they held rallies outside his district office. In August, 15 people marched 285 miles over 21 days from Sacramento in a "pilgrimage" to his office. In October, area growers and the union delivered more than 8,000 postcards and letters to his office.

Then, in November, 13 women occupied his district office and refused to leave until Mr. McCarthy met with them. And in December, the union staged an 11-day campaign with daily events outside Mr. McCarthy's office. Mr. McCarthy's staff, citing disruptions, kept the doors locked.

The activism provoked a response from opponents of an overhaul. The Bakersfield Tea Party began staging counter-protests and pressed their case in meetings with Mr. McCarthy. "We would go out there with our own signs saying we did not support amnesty for illegal behavior," said Alfred Hernandez, the group's administrator.

A group called Californians for Population Stabilization aired ads charging that Mr. McCarthy wants to make it easier for foreigners to take American jobs.

The group Numbers USA, which calls for limits on immigration, also grew concerned that Mr. McCarthy might support legislation it considered to be amnesty for people who had illegally entered the country. It directed its members to phone and message Mr. McCarthy's offices, and to drop by his office with material making their case, said Roy Beck, the group's CEO. "We did react on McCarthy, because he's truly in play," he said.

People close to Mr. McCarthy say the conflicting pressures made him wary of getting involved with the issue at all. In the interview, Mr. McCarthy focused on the pressure from pro-immigration forces, saying they had protested at his house, confronted him at the grocery store and made it impossible for his staff to work because the protests were so loud.

"I can't go anywhere in the community without being protested," he said. "I don't see how that is productive."

—Patrick O'Connor contributed to this article.

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