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Some Republicans About to Feel Uncomfortable on Immigration—and That's the Point

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

House Democrats will try again Wednesday to force a vote on immigration reform. They realize they probably will not succeed. But their strategy has another aim, according to liberal advocacy groups: To make immigration a decisive issue in upcoming elections, thereby taking advantage of the growing Latino vote.

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will put the plan into action in the morning, when she files a “discharge petition,” calling for a vote on an immigration bill that has been languishing since last summer. If she and her allies can get 218 signatures, it will compel Speaker John Boehner to bring the bill to the floor, something he has refused to do.

In theory, the petition could attract support from Republicans who have said they want to vote for reform. In reality, it will get few if any signatures from the GOP. The three Republican co-sponsors of the lower chamber's immigration bill, David Valadao and Jeff Denham of California and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, told Seung Min Kim of Politico in February that they would not entertain signing a discharge petition. “Very few discharge petitions actually succeed, since it is considered a breach of party loyalty to sign onto an effort from the opposing party,” Kim wrote at the time. There have been seven successful ones in the last 30 years.

Even without the requisite signatures, the petition serves a strategic goal, according to supporters of reform. “The purpose becomes to put a target on the back of Republicans who say they’re for reform but didn’t get their party to bring it up for a vote,” says Frank Sharry of America’s Voice. “It becomes an issue that can be brought up in their reelection campaign.”

America’s Voice has already compiled a list of thirty House Republicans who have made supportive comments about reform—and who progressive groups plan to brand as hypocrites if they won’t sign. Most are from California, Florida, Nevada, and other states where the Latino community is growing rapidly as a share of voters. Immigrant-rights groups are already talking about districts where that changing electoral map could turn the petition—“an esoteric beltway term,” Jeff Hauser of the AFL-CIO acknowledged—into the rallying point for a public campaign.

Despite the setbacks of the past year, advocates are sure they have demographics on their side. “The map in 2014, generally speaking, is not that favorable for the immigration reform cause,” Sharry said, but the 2016 map is “excellent.” That year, GOP-held Senate seats in Latino-heavy states will be up for grabs, and the Presidential election will swell the turnout of blue groups, especially minorities and young voters. Sharry gamed it out: “Our commitment as a movement is to get stronger in more places every election cycle. Quite frankly, we’re hoping to make some progress in 2014, but we’re hoping to have a huge 2016—and the way you have a huge 2016 is to get stronger in 2014.” The discharge petition, it's hoped, could give progressives some leverage in the coming election, when it will be lacking.

A handful of Republicans are already in danger of losing their jobs this midterms. The political analysis group Latino Decisions, in a report from July 2013, found 14 GOP-held seats where the voting-age Latino population dwarfs the 2012 margin of victory, meaning the immigration issue could be a deciding factor in 2014. Two were in Colorado, two in California, two in Florida, and three in New York. Beyond that, Latino Decisions listed 30 seats where Latino voters will be crucial within a few cycles. Greg Sargent of The Washington Post put together a chart to show the projected growth of the Latino electorate:

Republican leaders grasp their short- and long-term vulnerabilities. The GOP is continuing to pour resources into Hispanic voter outreach, for example in Florida, where the Republican National Committee deployed a new group of advisors at the end of last week. Immigration advocates are skeptical such efforts will work—and think efforts like Wednesday’s can have particular influence with Republicans who aspire to a higher office. “If you’re Paul Ryan and you might want to run for president in 2016, failing to sign the discharge petition is an issue,” Hauser said. “The risk Republicans take on if they don’t do this shouldn’t only be read by the prism of 2014.”

This post has been updated.