Many gather during a rally for immigration reform in from...

Many gather during a rally for immigration reform in from of the Westchester County Executive office in White Plains. (April 10, 2013) Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

The polling firm Latino Decisions released a report last week on what it called "the Proposition 187 effect." It documents how the anti-immigrant ballot initiative in 1994 became the turning point at which California shifted from being politically competitive to becoming one of the most solidly Democratic states in America.

It titled its study "Lessons for the GOP from California." The lesson: Unless Republicans in the House of Representatives act on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, the national party risks following California Republicans downhill.

The issue has taken on urgent significance in the wake of the government-shutdown debacle that was resolved only after Speaker John Boehner allowed a bill to reopen the government to be put to a vote. It passed with support from 198 Democrats and 89 Republicans.

Boehner's action violated the so-called "Hastert Rule" because he allowed legislation to be voted on even though it was opposed by a majority of Republicans.

Now the question becomes whether Boehner will do the same with comprehensive immigration reform.

Savvy Republicans in California are pleading with Boehner to move forward because they have seen how the Proposition 187 effect has decimated their party in California.

In the years since Proposition 187, the Latino share of the California electorate has doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent. Over the same period, the share of Latinos voting for Democrats has climbed from 65 percent to 78 percent.

The only way for Republicans to halt that trend is to get the immigration issue off the table through enactment of a reform that grants immediate legal status to immigrants living here illegally and provides a reasonable pathway to citizenship over time.

Stanford University Professor Gary Segura, a co-founder of Latino Decisions, says polling shows the issue is not only important to Latino voters but also personal: 87 percent have a family member within two generations who came to the United States without documents.

About 70 percent of Latino voters say they would view the GOP more favorably if the House simply held a vote on comprehensive immigration reform.

"Just having a vote allowed to come to the floor," Segura told me, "begins to stop the bleeding right away." He notes that Mitt Romney received 27 percent of the Latino vote. If the House blocks immigration reform, it could get worse.

"They assume that's the bottom," he says of some Republicans. "There's no guarantee that's the bottom." The hard-liners, stung by last week's defeat, are in no mood to back down.

A email blast this week sought to mobilize activists to pressure House members to prevent President Barack Obama from "jamming amnesty on the House." Segura notes there are two schools of thought on what happens now. Either the House leadership "is in such deep trouble with its own base that it will never move forward," or it will decide it needs to do what's best for the party "even if it means the screamers are going to scream." If nothing is done, the potential victims are moderate Republican House members.

The Latino Decisions report identifies 44 Republican-held House districts with significant numbers of Latino voters in which the incumbent's 2012 victory was fairly narrow. It suggests three California Republicans are at potential risk: Jeff Denham in the Central Valley, Gary Miller in the Inland Empire and Howard "Buck" McKeon, whose district straddles Ventura County and northern Los Angeles County.

McKeon's position on a path to citizenship is that it should be tied to border security. His spokeswoman said this week that McKeon believes reform legislation "needs to start with securing the borders and putting in place a lawful, workable and fair status mechanism for those who are currently living in the country undocumented." Latinos make up 31.5 percent of the voting-age population in a district that McKeon won by 10 percentage points in 2012 and Obama came within 2 percentage points of carrying.

It's the kind of district that could be affected if the Republican share of the Latino vote has not yet hit bottom.

After having broken Hastert's Rule last week, Boehner now faces two distinct risks as he ponders whether to possibly break it again.

He could move an immigration bill forward and risk an intraparty coup that could oust him as speaker. Or he could keep the issue bottled up and risk losing so many moderate members in 2014 that his prize would be to become minority leader.

Boehner and national Republicans are facing their own Proposition 187 moment.

Timm Herdt covers California state government and politics for the Ventura County Star.


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