On the flight home from Washington last week for the Fourth of July recess, Rep. Joe Heck (R-Nev.) read all 1,200 pages of immigration reform that had just passed the Senate.
It is a document that probably has no political future in the GOP-controlled House, but Heck may be a prime example of why House Republicans will be forced to grapple with immigration in the next few months, despite deep opposition within their caucus and their party.
Heck’s district begins just south of the glitzy hotels and casinos on the Vegas Strip and stretches into the neighboring suburbs teeming with Latino and Asian immigrants, who work at the same hotels and casinos. Those immigrant employees comprise about a quarter of the district’s voters and last year they mostly backed President Obama, in part because of his support for immigration reform that is embodied in the recently approved Senate bill.
But the conservative Republican voters who secured Heck’s reelection last year oppose any legislation that would give a pass to immigrants living in the United States illegally, especially because of Nevada’s persistently high unemployment rate.
This is an immigration crossroads, where demographics and ideology collide, and because of this, Heck may be one of the few Republicans with a responsibility to try to persuade his GOP colleagues to take action on the issue.
He said that those Republicans who oppose a House debate “have to understand that for those of us who represent districts that have a large foreign population, this is not a Mexican issue, this is not a Hispanic issue. This is an issue about a broken legal immigration system. They’ve got to understand that we’ve got to address this broken immigration system or, quite honestly, we maintain the status quo and we continue to see a growing illegal population.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said that on immigration, he will hold votes only on bills backed by a majority of House Republicans, which disqualifies the Senate measure Heck spent so much time with last week.
“Like any 1,198-page bill, there are some good things in there, there are some bad things in there,” he said in an interview. “I hope that when those provisions are addressed in the House that we have the opportunity to tighten up the areas that need to be tightened.”
Among the things in the Senate bill that Heck wants to change are making it a prerequisite that hundreds of miles of new border fencing be built and more agents be deployed to help eliminate illegal border crossings before any illegal immigrant is given a chance to start the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.
And he wants to toughen the education requirements for the children of illegal immigrants seeking citizenship.
Heck held a town hall meeting at a library auditorium here Tuesday night. About 80 people attended, and of the 15 questions he took, 10 were about immigration.
“Let’s face it, we have a broken legal immigration system,” he told the crowd at one point.
“No, we don’t,” one man shouted.
“Yes, we do,” Heck shot back.
“You’re just not enforcing the law,” the man replied.
But Heck pressed on: “We do an awful lot of legal immigrant visa casework in my office. And we have folks that have been in the queue waiting for a visa to bring their spouse from the Philippines for 15 years.”
“I think it’s ridiculous,” he added as others shouted at him. “As the grandson of Italian immigrants who came through Ellis Island . . .”
A woman cut him off, saying, “But they didn’t come illegally.”
“I understand that,” Heck said. “And that’s because they didn’t have to wait 15 years back in Italy. It’s not easy, but it’s something we have to address.”
Later, a younger woman in the back of the room put Heck on the spot: Would he vote for the Senate bill if it ever earned a vote in the House?
He wavered at first, then said, “If it was brought up in the House, there would be an opportunity to amend it.”
But the woman pressed him again.
“As it’s currently written, I would vote no,” he said.
Knowing he couldn’t please everyone, Heck remained hopeful.
“There are just some fundamental differences between certain individuals and party ideology,” he told the crowd. “There will always be those divisions. But there’s always the opportunity to come together, as we’ve seen in the House and in the Senate, to pass bills that everybody can get behind.”
Heck is also facing considerable pressure from national Democrats who are pushing him to support immigration reform modeled on the Senate bill that most Republicans consider unacceptable.
Among Heck’s constituents is Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), whose home town of Searchlight sits in the southern part of the Republican’s district. Reid held a rally Monday just off the Strip to celebrate the Senate measure’s passage and to urge House Republicans to support it.
“We’re a long ways from finished, we’re only halfway done. But what a good halfway this is,” Reid told hundreds who were packed into the local headquarters of the Culinary Workers Union. He urged the crowd to call GOP lawmakers such as Heck and “tell them that Speaker Boehner cannot stand in the way of what the American people want and are going to demand.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is airing Spanish-language radio ads here that criticize Heck’s recent vote for a plan that would force the Department of Homeland Security to resume deporting the children of illegal immigrants. Similar ads are airing in 22 other House districts, in California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New York and Pennsylvania, that are represented by Republicans who narrowly won reelection or have many Latino voters.
“Voting on immigration reform by itself may not win or lose a specific congressional district,” DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. “On the other hand, yet another failure by Republicans to find a compromise and solve a problem could win or lose the House. So this fits into a general narrative of whether Republicans like Joe Heck and others choose to pander to their right-wing base, or listen to the concerns of moderates and independents who expect some compromise.”
Heck dismisses the push from Democrats.
“I’m not the speaker, I’m not the majority leader, I’m not a committee chairman. You can pressure me as much as you want, but I’m not the one that decides what gets a vote on the House floor,” he said.
But some voters say that where Heck ends up on immigration will determine whether they support him for reelection in 2014.
Bob Yeary, a retired school teacher from Las Vegas, was one of the voters shouting at the lawmaker Tuesday night when he suggested that the immigration system is broken.
“He’s in a tough position,” Yeary said, adding later that Republicans will face severe electoral consequences if they support a significant immigration overhaul. “The GOP will be destroyed if we let 40 million, 50 million immigrants in at this time,” he said.
Then there’s Otto Merida, who leads the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce and is a registered Republican. He meets regularly with Heck, and often tells him “that immigration is something that will determine how we vote for you in the next election. This is very important to us,” he said. “And if you don’t do it, unfortunately I’ll have to vote against you and campaign against you, even though I like you. This is the right thing to do and we need to do it right now.”
Astrid Silva, 25, has emerged as a prominent spokeswoman for immigrant advocates in southern Nevada. She crossed the Rio Grande with her family from Mexico as a 4-year-old girl and eventually settled in Las Vegas. She has spoken with Heck about immigration reform five times in recent months.
“We know that Heck understands our issues. He’s been evolving on it,” Silva said.
But she’s ready and willing to campaign against Heck if he doesn’t vote the way she wants.
“We’ve waited decades for this and I do think that we have momentum right now,” she said. “If Congress takes much longer on it, we won’t lose the momentum, but we will get very impatient.”