As the House of Representatives takes up immigration reform this summer following a sweeping bill's passage in the Senate, few of the Republicans who dominate the chamber are as affected by the nation's border and immigration laws as those from California.

Speaking to farmworkers and other constituents gathered in a Modesto church this spring, U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, revealed the complicated relationship many California Republicans have with the more than 2 million immigrants living illegally in this state.

His sister, the congressman noted, "fell in love with an undocumented worker" and married him. Immigrants without U.S. citizenship -- from his Mexican father-in-law to fellow parents at his kids' schools -- have been an integral part of his life.

U.S. Representative Jeff Denham, R-Madera. (AP File Photo/Steve Yeater)
U.S. Representative Jeff Denham, R-Madera. (AP File Photo/Steve Yeater)

"It's a big issue in my district," Denham said Friday of the immigration debate, and "it's something that has affected me personally."

Reform proponents are targeting staunch conservatives in multiethnic districts such as Denham's, which stretches from Tracy to the Sierra foothills, to gather enough votes to pass a bill this year, but they are waging an uphill battle against House GOP leaders determined to ignore the Senate's proposals.

The House will resist any measure that gives "a special pathway to citizenship where people who are here unlawfully get something that people who have worked for decades to immigrate lawfully do not have," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee. A pathway to legal standing without citizenship could be an option, he told CNN on Sunday.


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Other national leaders of the Republican Party see reform as crucial to winning more support from the fast-growing Latino, Asian-American and immigrant electorate ahead of the 2016 presidential election. At the same time, many Republican lawmakers -- especially those from predominantly white districts with few immigrants -- worry that being too lenient on immigration will draw primary challengers trying to oust them in 2014.

The dynamics, however, are different in California, where Latinos represent at least a quarter of the population in most Republican congressional districts and 39 percent of the state population, surpassing non-Latino whites as the largest group for the first time this summer. Several longtime Congress members who took a more draconian approach were defeated or retired last year, and the new GOP delegation has a mix of perspectives.

"There appear to be significant differences of opinion among Republicans, and I don't think they've sorted out yet what they're going to do," said U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose. "There's some chance we'll get some support from some Republicans in California. Not all of them. Maybe a couple."

Lofgren is part of a House group of four Democrats and three Republicans -- a fourth dropped out -- completing details of their own sweeping immigration bill. It could be released soon after Congress returns from their July 4 recess.

"In some respects our bill is better (than the Senate's)," Lofgren said. "And in some respects it's probably more conservative."

It will need to be, Lofgren and others point out, to muster enough support in a House where Republicans hold 234 seats to the Democrats' 201.

And to get enough votes, immigrant advocates have launched a campaign to influence Republicans such as Denham and others around the state. In recent weeks, caravans of activists have delivered petitions to rural and suburban Republican offices across Southern California and the Central Valley.

As a state legislator, Denham opposed tuition benefits for student immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and embraced Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration.

Now, however, he says he is supportive of "earned legal status" for immigrants here illegally, as long as the bill does not make the same mistakes that allowed illegal immigration to flourish after the 1986 amnesty.

"I'm encouraged by the progress they've made" in the Senate, he said. The Senate bill includes $46 billion for border security, a major demand of conservatives there, along with a mandatory worker verification system to deny jobs to anyone without a work permit.

Already, Denham and another Central Valley Republican, Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, have bucked party leaders in opposing Goodlatte's agricultural guest worker bill passed through the House Judiciary Committee last month. Both say they prefer the Senate's farmworker provision, a compromise between the farm industry and worker unions that includes a way for farmworkers already here to stay.

Still, how other California Republicans will vote remains a mystery.

"The big question is (GOP Majority Whip) Kevin McCarthy," said Giev Kashkooli, third vice president of the United Farm Workers of America, a group that has been focusing much of its political pressure on the Bakersfield Republican. "There's no question that the people in his district overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly support a new process for citizenship."