Coco Xiao (left) and Sophat Phea (right)

Coco Xiao, left, and Sophat Phea canvass a Fullerton neighborhood in an effort to get Rep. Ed Royce to change his position on overhauling immigration law. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / August 13, 2013)

 In 11 terms in Congress, Rep. Ed Royce has taken a hard line on illegal immigration, earning an A-plus rating from the anti-amnesty group Numbers USA.

Earlier this year, the Fullerton Republican joined in a symbolic vote against President Obama's deferred-action program for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

Even so, advocates on both sides of the debate have marked Royce as a lawmaker who could change his mind on a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. With immigration reform stalled in the House, he is among the Republicans targeted in recent weeks with rallies, letter-writing campaigns and media advertisements during the August recess.

In large part, this is due to the ethnic makeup of Royce's district -- 34% Latino and 28% Asian. Conventional wisdom says this heavily foreign-born demographic may turn against Royce if he does not moderate his views on immigration.

But the 39th District presents what experts called a uniquely Southern California conundrum, defying stereotypes about immigrants and their loyalties. It is majority minority yet suburban and wealthy -- the average household income is $98,000. Bisected by the Puente Hills and straddling Los Angeles and Orange counties, it includes both the Nixon presidential library and the massive hilltop Hsi Lai Buddhist temple.

The 2010 redistricting brought the Taiwanese and Chinese enclaves of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Chino Hills into Royce's territory. Royce has ramped up community outreach in these areas, opening an office in Rowland Heights with bilingual signs and Mandarin-speaking staffers.

Asians and Latinos in Orange County tend to be more conservative and less focused on immigration as a top concern, some experts say.

"That may give Royce the political cover necessary to maintain hard-line positions on immigration while winning a diverse constituency," said Tom Wong, a UC San Diego political science professor who analyzes immigration votes.

In front of Fullerton City Hall earlier this month, a man interrupted an immigrant-rights rally, sidling up to the marchers and drowning out their chants with one of his own.

"Mexican nationals are stealing American benefits!" he shouted. The rally continued, with activists urging Royce to support legalizing the 11 million.

Waiting in line

On the other end of Royce's district, in a Hacienda Heights shopping plaza catering to Chinese immigrants, Johnny Wan had little sympathy for those who didn't wait in line, as he did. It took Wan 15 years to get a green card through his brother.

"We waited 10 to 20 years, while they wouldn't have to wait. It's not fair," Wan, a Hong Kong native who owns a Chinese-language bookstore, said in Mandarin.

Royce was traveling in Southeast Asia for much of August. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to be interviewed.

"There is no question that we must fix our broken immigration system," Royce said in a written statement. "That means implementing faster documentation processes and workable employer verification as well as effectively securing our border. Only then can we talk about a pathway to an earned legal status for adults."

In 2006, Royce was among the Republican lawmakers who tried to do away with bilingual election ballots mandated by the Voting Rights Act. The change would have affected many voters in Royce's district, where two-thirds of residents spoke a language other than English at home. That same year, Royce voted for an enforcement-heavy House bill that prompted immigrant-rights protests nationwide.

Yet Royce's stances did not seriously damage his standing among voters. He won reelection that November by more than 30 percentage points.

As chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Royce is a champion of Taiwan and a critic of Communist Vietnam and North Korea -- popular positions among his foreign-born constituents. He has long been a fixture at Asian community events.

Nearly 40% of district voters are Republican, with the rest about evenly split between Democrats and independents. One in three residents is foreign-born.

"He has a history as chair of the foreign relations committee of engaging immigrant communities on homeland issues. He needs to listen more to our priorities about domestic issues," said Dayne Lee, a civic participation coordinator for the Korean Resource Center, which is pressuring Royce to support a path to citizenship.