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Who's who in GOP's pro-immigration reform camp

House Republicans have been tiptoeing around immigration this year, with leaders talking up the importance of passing legislation but staying vague on the part
Immigration - Benjy Sarlin - 08/29/2013
Zhang Xin E of China clutches a U.S. flag during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony in Oakland, California August 13, 2013....

House Republicans have been tiptoeing around immigration this year, with leaders talking up the importance of passing legislation but staying vague on the particulars. But  a handful of members have gotten ahead of the pack by embracing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—the policy that's caused the most heartburn on the right.

America's Voice, a leading immigration advocacy group, pegs the current pro-citizenship cohort at 24 members. That's far short of the necessary number to pass a bill, but it doesn't include the various members who are still working out their position. A number of House members have said they're against a "special path to citizenship," for example, but haven't ruled out people attaining citizenship through means available to legal immigrants.

"The criteria is the words 'path to citizenship,'" Frank Sharry, president of America's Voice, told MSNBC. "There's different conditions and caveats for everyone, but they all use the word."

The makeup of the "24 for citizenship" says a lot about the pressures the pro-immigration side has going for it as well as its limits. Here are some of the broad groups the pro-reform caucus fits into.

The Gang Of Seven

First, there are the Republicans working on a bipartisan immigration bill. This includes Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, a longtime reformer who represents a heavily Cuban district, as well as Texas Reps. John "Judge" Carter and Sam Johnson. The latter two were considered strong border hawks before they signed on to negotiations and their presence is one of the more hopeful signs for passing a bill. Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho dropped out of the group after a dispute over health care for undocumented immigrants, but has said that undocumented immigrants, once legalized, should be able to apply for citizenship through existing channels.

Changing Districts

This is the low hanging fruit for reformers. While the overwhelming majority of House Republicans represent safe districts dominated by white voters, there are a small handful who represent significant Latino and Asian populations. This group includes people like Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, who succeeded anti-immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo in 2008, but has embraced immigration reform since his district was redrawn to include more moderates and Latinos. Several members in this category are from California: David Valadao, Devin Nunes, Darrell Issa, and Jeff Denham. In New York, Reps. Pete King and Michael Grimm represent growing Latino and Asian populations. Ditto for Nevada's Joe Heck. Florida's Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a longtime advocate for reform.

Ambitious Climbers

Several of the most enthusiastic reformers in the House GOP are in safe seats and don't really need to worry about protecting their left flank by voting for immigration. But if they don't back it, their statewide ambitions are likely dead in the water. This category includes Dave Reichert of Washington, Aaron Schock of Illinois, and Mark Amodei of Nevada. All of them have flirted with runs for governor or senator in states with a large Latino or Asian population. You can probably throw Wisconsin's Paul Ryan in this category, who is perhaps the only member of the House with a plausible chance of being the party's presidential nominee in 2016. Then there's Oregon's Greg Walden, who has significant business interest in his district affected by immigration but is also the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee tasked with electing GOP candidates around the country.

Wait, They're On The List?

Alabama's Spencer Bachus is the headliner for this group. His state has the most aggressive immigration enforcement laws in the country and their architect, state senator Scott Beason, challenged him in a primary just last year. Yet Bachus has argued forcefully for immigration reform, saying his Christian faith compels him to sympathize with undocumented immigrants. His district also is heavy on agriculture, an industry lobbying hard for reform. Congressman James Lankford of Oklahoma, who has wavered a bit on citizenship, has also made an evangelical case for reform. Utah's Jason Chaffetz is a tea party senator in one of the most conservative states in the country. Once again, religion might be factor. The LDS church, which has worked hard to win Latino converts, is highly supportive of immigration reform and Republicans in the state are divided on the issue.

Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina has also said he supports a path to citizenship and even expects the House to pass one. GOP leaders refused to back his candidacy over issues surrounding his personal life, so he doesn't have much reason to follow them on any particular issue. Pennsylvania's Mike Kelly, who represents the overwhelmingly white western region of the state, isn't even on a target list of potential swing voters that immigration advocates are circulating. But in July he appeared to back a path to citizenship on national television, so here he is.

Who's Not On The List

Overall, only a relatively small group of members have proven they're willing to get ahead of House leadership, and quite a few of the members on the citizenship list have waffled a bit about how far they'll go. One concern is that there aren't a huge number of members who neatly fit into the above categories. Even among the few Republicans with large Latino constituencies, Reps. like California's Gary Miller, Buck McKeon, Kevin McCarthy, and New Mexico's Steve Pearce have been reluctant to fully commit to a path to citizenship.

"Theres a growing group of people—and we haven't made a list—saying they're for legal status and maybe some citizenship," Sharry said. "Kevin McCarthy is in that camp, for example. The question is, are they going to come up with their own proposal and make it one of the bills the House votes on? Or are they more staking out an openness to negotiation with the Senate?"

Nonetheless, Sharry says he feels optimistic. The anti-immigration side hasn't been particularly visible during the recess and they've been outright dwarfed by the many immigration advocacy campaigns blitzing districts around the country. Compared to the 2006 and 2007 debates, Republicans seem to be much more concerned about appearing outwardly hostile to immigration reform. The dominant position within the GOP for now appears be hedging one's bets while leadership decides what to do.