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California Republican takes a daring stand on overhauling immigration

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WASHINGTON —California Republican Rep. David Valadao of Hanford is pushing for an immigration overhaul, placing himself in the middle of the very issue that’s ripping both parties apart. 

Through public statements, legislation and now an earnestly worded plea to President Donald Trump, Valadao has positioned himself as one of the few congressional Republicans daring to support a comprehensive package that includes a pathway to legal status for immigrants who are already in this country illegally.

“For too long, extremes on either side of the aisle have discouraged constructive discussion regarding immigration,” Valadao said in the two-page letter sent to Trump on Tuesday, “but I believe with new executive leadership, now is the time to enact meaningful reform.”

In particular, Valadao pressed Trump for an article published long sought by farmers in California’s Central Valley, as well as “consideration for those who were brought to this country as minors, and at no fault of their own.”

“I do hope to have a conversation,” Valadao said in an interview Wednesday. “There has to be a Valley perspective going forward.”

Valadao said he had not heard back from the White House, acknowledging that he doesn’t have a personal contact there yet.

His position makes political and constituent sense, considering his congressional district, which spans Kings County and parts of Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties. Seventy-four percent of the district’s 716,000 residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent census count, and nearly 30 percent were born outside the United States. 

Comprehensive immigration changes have likewise been talked up by one of Valadao’s GOP colleagues, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, whose district in Stanislaus County and part of San Joaquin County spans a population that’s 42 percent Hispanic or Latino.

“I think Valadao will play a very important role,” Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, said in an interview Wednesday. “He’s always been able to bring people together, and he understands immigration.”

Agricultural and other groups interested in immigration are trying to set up a meeting with Trump administration officials, Cunha said. Some of the Californians who are going to the White House for other purposes, like Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, visiting this week, also carry immigration as a priority, Cunha said.

Valadao agreed that immigration changes must be pushed from the “top down,” meaning from the president, as well as from the “grass roots,” such as local officials, lawmakers and their constituents.

But among many of his fellow congressional Republicans, as well as in the White House itself, harder-line attitudes toward immigration appear to predominate, raising high bars to any potential compromise.

“President Trump is committed to building a border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities,” the White House says on its website. “He is dedicated to enforcing our border laws, ending sanctuary cities and stemming the tide of lawlessness associated with illegal immigration.”

Trump, who promised in his Jan. 20 inaugural address to “bring back our borders,” has already asserted himself with two immigration-related executive orders Jan. 25 that call for hiring 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents, among other provisions. A Jan. 27 executive order temporarily banning the entry of refugees or citizens of seven majority Muslim nations is being contested in court. (*Rural California Report editor's note: A federal appeals panel on Thursday, a day after this article published, denied President Trump's effort to reinstate the travel ban. The fate of the order is unclear.) 

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have put forward equally aggressive bills that at a minimum shape the political climate and in time might become law. 

One House of Representatives measure with 14 co-sponsors, including Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, would increase penalties for immigrants who unlawfully re-enter the United States after being removed. Another would prohibit immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally from claiming the popular earned income tax credit. Another would direct completion of a border fence.

Tuesday, two Senate Republicans introduced legislation to slash legal immigration as well, by reducing over 10 years the number of green cards issued annually to about 539,000 from the current level of about 1 million. The bill would also reduce the number of refugees granted permanent U.S. residency.

“It’s time our immigration system started working for American workers,” declared Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

Sending a signal from the other side, Valadao and Denham have joined several California Democrats – ranging from the moderate Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, to the liberal Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose – in backing legislation to protect from deportation immigrants who were unlawfully brought into the United States as minors.

Any legislation could be a hard sell in a deeply polarized Congress. Democratic campaign operatives, in previous unsuccessful efforts to unseat Valadao and Denham, have contended that the GOP lawmakers are posturing and not following through with consistent willingness to challenge Republican leaders. 

This article published on Feb. 8, 2017 on the McClatchy website.

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