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Let Them Eat Cantaloupes: The Shifting Tide Against Opponents of Immigration Reform

SOURCE: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Brian Rossell and his daughter, Kelly Rossell, 11, both from Sonsonate, El Salvador, hold up placards as they join immigration supporters during a rally for citizenship on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013.

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As the debate over immigration reform moves from the Senate—where S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, passed with a bipartisan supermajority of 68 to 32—to the House, it is increasingly clear that the few remaining opponents of reform are more isolated and marginalized than ever. The supporters of reform that incorporates a road map to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our nation include an array of business, organized labor, faith, and social justice organizations, as well as progressive and conservative organizations from MoveOn to the Cato Institute and the American Action Network. Supporters of reform can count veterans of previous immigration campaigns and new champions such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on their side.

But even as support from across the political and civic spectrum builds toward action in the House, the few nativist voices that oppose commonsense reform are making headlines. Just two weeks ago, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) rejected a Republican-led push for the DREAM Act, telling Newsmax that “For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds—and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” Though Rep. King previously compared immigrants to dogs without much pushback from his own party, this time the criticism was swift and came from both sides of the aisle.

House GOP leadership, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), condemned Rep. King for his remarks, and many others followed. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (D-NY) said that, “ugly, hateful language has no place in our debate about immigration. Period.” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) went even further, making Rep. King the focus of petitions calling for his removal from the House Subcommittee on Immigration. DREAMers—young people raised in the United States who lack legal status—flooded Capitol Hill with cantaloupes labeled “This cantaloupe was picked by immigrant hands in California. You gave Steve King a vote. Give us a vote for citizenship.” The effort protested Rep. King’s comments, referred to a recent House vote to defund Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA—an executive order that protects “DREAM Act-eligible” youth from deportations—and prodded Speaker Boehner to bring a viable reform bill to the House floor for a vote.

Evolving views on immigration

Over the past few months, and particularly since Rep. King’s comments, some of the staunchest immigration restrictionists have changed their tune. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), the chair of the obstructionist Immigration Reform Caucus, who once compared undocumented immigrants to grasshoppers, condemned Rep. King for his comments, saying I’ve changed” on the issue of immigration reform and that he understands the need to pair increased border security with other pressing immigration issues.

As polls from Gallup, CBS News, Latino Decisions, and Public Policy Polling have shown, immigration reform enjoys strong support from the American people, and Republicans—including Grover Norquist, Rupert Murdoch, Jeb Bush, Bill O’Reilly, and scores of other conservatives who have been longtime opponents of reform—have joined in voicing their support. Furthermore, more than 100 Republican donors and strategists—including Karl Rove, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Staples founder Tom Stemberg, and former Vice President Dan Quayle—signed a letter to House Republicans, urging them to pass an immigration reform bill similar to S. 744.

Since Rep. King’s comments, polls have found that 70 percent of Republican voters nationwide would support a path to citizenship with various conditions, such as fines, back taxes, passing criminal background checks, and learning English, and 59 percent said that Rep. King’s rhetoric hurts the Republican Party. Even 79 percent of constituents in Rep. King’s own district oppose his positions and support immigration reform that offers legal status to undocumented immigrants. All of this evidence proves that Rep. King—and those who are of a similar mind on immigration—are a shrinking group with waning support.

Before the November 2012 elections, it would have been hard to predict such seismic shifts on immigration, with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney running on a platform calling for undocumented immigrants to self-deport and vowing to veto the DREAM Act. But the strong turnout among Latino and Asian American voters, who comprised 10.8 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively, of the eligible electorate and helped drive President Barack Obama to victory, is a large part of how we got here.

This larger demographic shift has also hit home in individual congressional districts. Take Rep. Poe, for example: His Texas district jumped from 10 percent Latino to 41 percent Latino after the 2010 Census and redistricting. Speaking to the new demographic reality, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said that, “the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run in my view.”

Conclusion: Which way forward for House Republicans?

House GOP leaders are feeling the groundswell of support for immigration reform from across the political spectrum. Majority Leader Cantor and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) are working on a version of the DREAM Act called the KIDS Act—a major shift for two members who voted against the DREAM Act less than three years ago.

Will Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, and other GOP House leaders who insist they want immigration reform actually kill it through inaction? While there are currently five immigration bills awaiting action on the House floor, the leadership has indicated that they will not vote on any of them until October. Even then, GOP leadership said they would not pass a bill without a majority of Republican support. The question is: Will Speaker Boehner use the momentum resulting from Rep. King’s cantaloupe-sized gaffe and follow the public’s lead, or will he acquiesce to the fringes of his own party?

Anh Phan is the Anti-Hate Table Manager at the Center for American Progress.

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