WASHINGTON — Ever heard of David Valadao? Exactly.
The soft-spoken freshman congressman may be little known outside his district in California’s Central Valley, even to many of his House Republican colleagues. But he is emerging as a leading voice in urging GOP leadership to schedule a vote this year on an overhaul of immigration legislation.
It’s no surprise that Valadao joined Democrats this week on a bill that would provide a path to citizenship to millions of immigrants in the country illegally. After all, he represents a district that is 71% Latino and relies on immigrants to pick crops.
"We’ve got to do something,’’ the 36-year-old dairy farmer and son of immigrants from the Azores Islands of Portugal told reporters Friday.
Earlier this week, he was on the House floor buttonholing GOP colleagues to join his effort, and he is working on gathering signatures for a letter to the Republican leadership. But he also acknowledged his political limitations.
"I’m the freshman in the crowd,’’ he said.
So far, Valadao and only two other Republicans — Jeff Denham of Turlock and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida — have signed onto the bill that enjoys strong Democratic support. It is similar to a Senate bill passed in June.
"Leadership has to recognize that this is important to more of us than less of us,’’ he said in a conference call with reporters, arranged by America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group.
But he has his work cut out for him. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa, the senior California Republican in Congress, said in an interview Friday that granting legal status to millions of immigrants in the country illegally would "destroy our party.’’
"What we’re talking about is the suicide of the Republican Party,’’ he said.
Before coming out in support for the Democratic-written immigration legislation, Valadao was perhaps best known on Capitol Hill for a more arcane issue. When the subject of dairy policy came up during a House debate on a new farm bill, Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, pointed to Valadao and called him "probably the one guy in this place that understands how this works.’’
On the subject of immigration, Valadao said it would be wrong to pass legislation, as some Republicans have suggested, that would provide legal status but deny citizenship to immigrants in the country illegally. He said that would create a "second-class society.’’
Valadao said he would work with GOP leadership on the step-by-step approach it has favored for overhauling the immigration system, but said he signed onto the broader legislation to send a message that "this a big problem and it’s going to take a big solution.’’
He expressed concern that the standoff between congressional Republicans and the White House that led to a 16-day government shutdown has left bad feelings and complicated efforts to pass immigration legislation.
But, he added, "Let’s have this debate.’’
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