Could the Next House Speaker Do More on Immigration Reform?

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy's home district is 35 percent Latino, but that hasn't kept him from toeing his party's hard line on illegal immigration.

Immigration Activists Rally Against Challenges To Obama's Executive Order On Immigration

Activists call for federal judges to reject challenges to President Barack Obama's “Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents” (DAPA) program protest outside the Jacob K. Javits federal building in New York.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

With Speaker John Boehner's imminent retirement, the conventional wisdom is that his second-in-command will take his place. “I think Kevin McCarthy would make an excellent speaker,” Boehner said Friday of the California Republican who has been serving as his chief deputy since June. While he'll face plenty of competition, McCarthy has an advantage, largely because he's raised and spent more money helping to elect the Republicans who will be voting on whether to give him a promotion. That could raise some intriguing political possibilities for one issue that's been stalled in the House.

On paper, McCarthy is one member of the House leadership team who has a vested interest in moving forward with immigration reform. His district, based in Bakersfield, California, is 35 percent Latino and heavily dependent on migrant labor for its agricultural industry, which brought in $7.5 billion to Kern County in 2014. A 2012 UC Berkeley-Field Poll found that 47 percent of California Republicans favor a path to citizenship.

But his record is another matter. Throughout his seven years in House leadership, McCarthy has voted against the DREAM Act—which would have allowed those who grew up in the U.S. after being brought illegally as children to stay—and voted to defund President Barack Obama's executive orders that ended deportation of so-called DREAMers and other categories of people living here illegally. McCarthy also voted to end sanctuary cities. As a result, McCarthy's offices, both in his district and the Capitol, have been the site of several protests for immigration reform

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 28, 2015.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 28, 2015.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

“He should know better than almost anybody what danger the party faces by being anti-immigrant. But is he willing to stand up to Steve King and that wing of the Republican conference?” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the immigration advocacy group America's Voice, referring to the Iowa Republican congressman who is one of his party's most strident opponents of illegal immigration. “I don’t know, I haven’t seen it.”

Other activists are equally skeptical. Giev Kashooli, the strategic campaigns director for the United Farm Workers advocacy group, said Friday that immigration is a major issue for both the district and the country, and “if he doesn’t act on it, then he’ll be doing neither job...and he’d be choosing to represent the Trump voters.” 

McCarthy hasn't committed to reform, either. In January 2014, McCarthy told local Fox affiliate KBAK/KBFX that he supported a pathway to legalization that would allow undocumented immigrants to work and pay taxes. But once he was elected in June to replace Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who was ousted by a more conservative opponent in his primary, he took a different stance. In an interview with Fox News's Chris Wallace, he said America has to secure the border first. “I’m on record saying nothing about immigration, until we secure the borders,” McCarthy said. “Until you secure the borders, you cannot have the conversation about anything else.”

But the realities of McCarthy's district make immigration reform a pressing concern. Estimates of how many farm workers are undocumented vary—the U.S. Department of Agriculture, using 2012 Census data, found that 41 percent of farm workers are either documented or undocumented immigrants, but advocacy groups like United Farm Workers estimate the number could be closer to 70 percent.  

Civil rights groups aren't the only ones expressing concern. Agribusiness groups, including the local chapter of the American Farm Bureau Federation, are supporting legislation now before the California legislature that would grant work permits to undocumented farm workers and shield their families from deportation. “This is a labor force that I strongly support,” Beatrice Sanders, Kern County Farm Bureau executive director, told the Bakersfield Fox News affiliate. “Kern County agriculture cannot survive without them.”

Immigration activists are still hoping that McCarthy sides with constituents—voting and undocumented—in his agricultural community. Ben Monterroso, the executive director of Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, a non-profit immigrant advocacy group, said that voters, growers, business leaders, and elected representatives on both sides of the aisle in McCarthy's district want help. “Hopefully that will be enough motivation for him to work with his party to find a way to bring this issue of immigration reform to the table, so we can finish this conversation once and for all,” he said.

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