Can GOP neutralize immigration as election issue?

By Nicholas Riccardi

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 10 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, June 17, 2013.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

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.

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