House Republicans struggle to strike a balance on immigration
House Republicans are being pulled in two directions as fall's immigration debate looms. A small group supports a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, but the majority of the party opposes citizenship, and is more focused on border security.
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Political analysts said reluctant House members should take note of the country's changing demographics.Skip to next paragraph
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According to research by Tom Wong, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego, who studies the politics of immigration, six House Republicans will see their margin of victory in last year's election eclipsed in 2014 by the number of Hispanics and Asians who reach voting age. More than a dozen others, including Webster, will experience similar changes over the next decade.
The political impact goes beyond Hispanics, said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which tracks Congress.
"If Republicans get caricatured as the party of no sympathy and deportation, I think that gets filtered down to a larger population that isn't just Hispanic," he said. "They risk alienating non-Hispanic swing voters."
Webster is one of the more conservative members of the House, so his shift is instructive.
The longest-serving state legislator in Florida history (1980-2008), Webster built a reputation as a conservative stalwart. In 2004, he opposed then-Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to grant driver's licenses to unauthorized immigrants.
Elected to Congress in the tea party wave of 2010, Webster supported Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration and railed against "incentives" for those in the country illegally.
But after a close race last year in a newly drawn district with a growing Hispanic population, Webster softened his stance, pushing instead what he calls a "methodical," piecemeal approach to immigration.
His Central Florida district extends from the orange groves, blueberry fields and tree farms in the west, which rely on immigrant labor, to the tourism hub of Orlando, home to Disney World and the surrounding hospitality industry. All are serviced by a heavily Hispanic workforce. About 16 percent of Webster's constituents are Hispanic.
A few miles north of the town hall, Cherry Lake Tree Farm, one of the area's largest employers, had posted a Spanish-language ad for new workers along the roadside. Once a largely white community, Groveland is now 25 percent Hispanic. Its main street is dotted with Mexican restaurants and taco stands frequented by immigrant field workers.
At the meeting inside the local community center, tensions were clear.
A woman who identified herself as a registered nurse argued against a path to citizenship for those here illegally, saying immigrants could carry disease across the border.
Then Tony Rosado, mayor of nearby Mascotte, rose to identify himself as a Puerto Rican immigrant, adding, "and I don't have any communicable diseases, as far as I know."
A longtime owner of a heating and air conditioning business, Webster diffused the room with the measured tone of a repairman explaining a pricey estimate. Congress should tackle border security and employment verification first, he told the crowd, and then examine the status of immigrants working in the country illegally.
"Some want to become citizens, and I think that should be part of this," he said.
At the same time, Webster also plays up the role of law enforcement, saying he wants to empower state and local authorities to help enforce any new immigration laws, something immigration advocates oppose as reminiscent of Arizona's crackdown.
Holding up his House voting card, he explained his legislative philosophy: "If I'm 51 percent for something, I'm voting 'yes.' ... There are no perfect bills."
Afterward, constituents lined up to shake the congressman's hand.
"The people who said 'no amnesty,' they know you have to do something," Webster said after the meeting. "And I believe our membership will come to that conclusion as well."