A Ceres sanctuary filled with Latino parishioners and social activists thundered with applause Sunday at the introduction of Rep. Jeff Denham. They came to St. Jude's Catholic Church to thank him for being the first Republican member of the House of Representatives to support immigration reform in H.R. 15, and to ask what they can do to win passage of the landmark legislation.
"We thank Congressman Denham for standing up for our families," said Gloria Sanchez a leader with the Modesto based Congregations Building Community (CBC). "By lending his support to H.R. 15, he has shown that he is a leader. So we are here to ask him to continue to lead by gathering together those members of his party who told their constituents that they would support a pathway to citizenship. In H.R. 15 there is a way to support a path to citizenship and now is the time to support it."
The meeting with Denham was organized by CBC, and PICO, a California federation which is working toward a pathway to full citizenship rights for 11 million illegal aliens from Mexico.
Rep. David Valadao, R-CA, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, have joined Denham in supporting the bipartisan House immigration bill. But many representatives appear reluctant to support H.R. 15, otherwise known as The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act.
Denham assured the Ceres audience that supporters are speaking to colleagues "one by one by one" to get them to sign a letter to ask Speaker John Boehner to put the bill to a vote before the end of the year.
"We continue to have large meetings not only with Republican members but Republicans and Democrats," said Denham. "We're at 190 members right now. We need to be at 218."
Denham said he is pushing the speaker to call for a vote "so we're not pushing this off to next year or the next president." He said timing is crucial, especially since another government shutdown or debt ceiling debate could resurface in January or February.
A similar bill was introduced by Republicans under President George W. Bush but it was mired in politics. Denham said he wants a vote this month or next.
"We need to make our voices heard now more than ever," Denham told the Ceres audience.
Denham's office has been flooded by calls urging him to withdraw his support of H.R. 15 but Denham urged his audience to flood the offices of congress members who don't support it and "ask why."
"It's important to our economy, it's important to our country and it's something for us for Republicans with Republican values. We want to keep families together."
He said he has been asking colleagues to express what they don't like about the bill instead of just saying no to it.
When asked why his colleagues are resistant to supporting a pathway to citizenship, Denham acknowledged the issue is "controversial."
"It's always easy to sit back and do nothing or vote no. I'm having a lot of criticism for my position. Certainly there are many who agree with my position."
Denham disagrees with those who say that H.R. 15 is amnesty for those who broke immigration law and rejected the idea that the pathway is easy.
"It's going to be difficult. It's an earned pathway. It is a provisional status for the first six years, after passing a background check, after you pay the application fee, after you pay back taxes, and then your reward for that first six years is having to go through that whole process again. It's a difficult process."
An opportunity to become a legal permanent resident awaits those who must pay a second application fee and background check.
"You're still waiting in line like everybody else," said Denham. "And it is a 13-year process. It's a difficult process but it is a workable process. It gives hope to people. It will keep families together. I think it's one that can fix our broken immigration system once and for all."
H.R. 15 also includes Denham's ENLIST Act, which allows qualified undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship by serving honorably in the U.S. military. He said the option for military service would be the quickest pathway to citizenship.
Students speak out
Miguel Herrera, a student at Fresno State and constituent in the 22nd Congressional District, said 60 percent of his native Tulare County is composed of undocumented residents.
"I have witnessed the struggle of undocumented people," said Herrera, who related working in the fields with a friend who was deported during an immigration enforcement raid. "We grew up together. We went to high school together. We graduated together. He attended College of Sequoias in Visalia and after that summer he was deported back to Mexico. And I know it's not only him but millions of people who are going through this process. That was a life ruined, a future denied to him that he had every right to do. He was a working citizen, well, a working person. He went through the education process. He wanted a better future for himself, which was denied."
Herrera said calls to set up a meeting with his congressman, Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, to talk about supporting H.R. 15 have gone unanswered. Herrera asked Denham to arrange a meeting with Nunes to talk.
Also speaking was Jennifer Romero who flew in from Aurora, Colo. She told the crowd that her mother snuck across the border but was not allowed to return after visiting ill parents six years ago.
"These six years have been really hard for my family," said Romero. "My younger sisters have had to grow up in their teen years without mom being there, my dad having to come home to a lonely house because his wife is not there to cook him a nice warm meal, and myself to have graduated high school and have many birthdays and Christmases without my mom..."
Pastor Wayne Bridegroom of Central Grace Community Church in Modesto, whose great-grandfather was the mayor of Turlock in the 1920s, gave his blessing to the Latino fight.
"We've been here and let me tell you," said Bridegroom, "you folks have added so much to this Valley and I am so glad you are here and maybe with the help of our congressman and others in front of us we're going to see that pathway to citizen, amen?"
H.R. 15 was proposed by House Democrats on Oct. 2 and is largely based on the Senate bill that passed by a vote of 68-32 in June. The House bill, however, removes the Corker-Hoeven Border Security Amendment, replacing it with the House Border Security Plan, H.R. 1417, also known as the McCaul Bill that was unanimously approved by the House Homeland Security Committee in May.
The McCaul Bill requires regular reports on surveillance and control over the borders by the Department of Homeland Security, who must also: utilize technology to gain situational awareness and produce metrics to measure progress and accountability; include efforts to assess control over illegal entries; create a plan to implement a biometric entry-exit system at ports of entry immediately, or an alternate plan that will provide the same level of security.
Aside from a more measured approach to border security, the House bill also includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.