Can GOP neutralize immigration as election issue?
AURORA, Colo. • If the apparent slow death of immigration legislation has any political repercussions this year, they probably will be felt in the subdivisions, shopping centers and ethnic eateries wrapped around Denver's southern end.
U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman represents this fast-changing district.
He's among a few vulnerable Republican members in line to be targeted by immigrant rights advocates if the House doesn't pass an immigration bill before the November election that would offer legal status to millions of people who entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas.
The issue is no easy solution for Democrats needing to gain 17 seats to win back the House majority. Democratic campaign officials are focusing on about two dozen GOP-held seats where immigration could be a factor, but they rank only nine in the top tier of possible pickups.
Immigration advocates acknowledge their impact on House races this year is limited. Most Republicans hold safe seats in districts with relatively low numbers of immigrants. Coffman is one of the most vulnerable incumbents, but the three-term lawmaker's shift on the issue illustrates the difficulties Democrats may have.
Coffman was elected in 2008 to succeed immigration firebrand Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. Coffman endorsed Tancredo in the 2010 governor's race, which he lost, and initially backed measures such as barring U.S. citizenship to children whose parents were in the country without legal permission. Coffman also supported allowing English-only ballots in districts with large immigrant populations.
But his district was redrawn to include immigrant-heavy Aurora. After seeing fast-growing Hispanic and Asian populations overwhelmingly back Democrats in 2012, Coffman embraced citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. He announced his new position in Spanish.
Coffman stopped short of backing a broader proposal to legalize more of the people in the country illegally, but he was one of the few House Republicans at a recent party meeting in Maryland to urge his colleagues to pursue an immigration bill.
Seeing major divisions within the GOP and saying that Republicans don't trust President Barack Obama to enforce the law, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last month that immigration legislation is unlikely to reach the House floor until after the election.
"The fact that immigration reform has disappeared kind of takes it off the table," said Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan Denver-based pollster. Coffman "is doing everything he can to make it a less salient issue," Ciruli said.
Obama took Coffman's district by 5 percentage points in 2012, while Coffman by only 2 points. One-fifth of the congressman's constituents are Hispanic, 10 percent are black, and political registration is evenly divided among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
"I'm still working for immigration reform," Coffman said in an interview.
Coffman says his change of heart on immigration dates from discussions with young people in the country illegally who cannot join the military or go to college.
"I really believe that the strongest expression of American citizenship is serving this country in uniform," said Coffman, a Marine Corps and Army veteran. He's proposed granting citizenship to any young person here illegally who enlists.
In addition to studying Spanish, Coffman has also spent time in his district's numerous other immigrant communities. Last month he visited an Ethiopian church. But he says he does not support an immigration bill passed by the Senate and prefers more steps to ensure the border is secure before granting legal status.
Some who question his sincerity note that last year Coffman voted to end Obama's policy of granting work permits to people brought to the country illegally when they were young. The step could have led to deporting some of the people Coffman wants to aid in his military bill. Coffman said he objected to Obama's putting the program in place on his own, and that he preferred Congress act.
"He's saying the right things and we welcome that," said Jesus Altamirano of the National Council of La Raza. "But he's telling us one thing and voting another."
Coffman remains a member of the Immigration Reform Caucus, a group founded by Tancredo that is steered by Republican congressmen who have been vocal opponents of letting those in the country illegally gain citizenship.
Support for a path to citizenship for those in the U.S. illegally is popular in Colorado. A recent poll showed 59 percent of the state's voters back it.
Republicans in other high-immigrant districts might be even more vulnerable. In California, U.S. Reps. Jeff Denham and David Valadao have signed on to a Democratic resolution urging House passage of the Senate's immigration bill. Denham announced his support on Spanish-language television.
Frank Sharry of the Washington-based immigration advocacy group America's Voice said the issue will be more formidable in 2016, when the presidential election is expected to bring out more Hispanic voters and there will be a clearer contrast on the issue.
But Sharry said that Republicans like Coffman are fair game. The message to immigrant and Hispanic voters, Sharry said, will be: "He's ineffective. He can't get his party to stop screwing you."
Izzy Santa of the Republican National Committee scoffed at the notion that immigration could be used against Coffman and others. "They're the members who are trying to move the issue forward," Santa said.
Republicans are going after Coffman's Democratic challenger, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, on the issue.
The National Republican Congressional Committee released a Web ad last year chiding Romanoff for helping pass legislation in 2006 that Democrats boasted was the toughest package against illegal immigration in the country. The proposals barred people here illegally from receiving nonemergency benefits, and were criticized by some Republicans for not being stringent enough.
Democrats are frustrated at the attack. They say Romanoff has long supported immigration reform.
Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NickRiccardi.