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BY JOSE GASPAR Contributing columnist
This is a tale of two congressmen who came to Bakersfield last week. One's a Democrat, Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, and the other a Republican, Rep. David Valadao of Hanford. Their mission: to find common ground on the politically sensitive -- and divisive -- issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Much is at stake here, including the lives of approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Gutierrez and Valadao were the keynote speakers at a town hall meeting organized by The California Table, an immigration reform coalition of some 50 groups. It was held at Bakersfield Christian Church.
To catch up on recent events, the Senate passed its own legislation last month in the first major overhaul of immigration laws since 1986. Among other things, the Senate bill provides for a pathway to earned citizenship for some undocumented immigrants and adds a slew of new security measures at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But it faces a much more difficult if not downright hostile time in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Bluntly put, any talk of the pathway to citizenship by Republican congressmen from deeply conservative districts is blasphemy. And it's a good bet that some Democrats in conservative areas aren't exactly embracing the idea either. Enter Gutierrez and Valadao.
In a rare display of bipartisanship, the two spoke of the need to change the nation's immigration laws to catch up with today's reality. Valadao spoke of his personal experience as a dairy farmer.
"My whole life I lived on a farm, so I grew up in a community surrounded by immigrants," said the freshman congressman. When an audience member asked if he supported comprehensive immigration reform, Valadao didn't miss a beat.
"I support comprehensive immigration reform," he said, and the place went wild with many standing and applauding. Valadao appeared to be caught off-guard by the public response.
Gutierrez is a longtime advocate of immigration reform and a savvy veteran of Congress. He is one of four Democrats and three Republicans in the House working as a group to craft legislation and present a bill for the House to consider.
To get any such bill to a House floor vote is in itself a challenge. Republican Speaker John Boehner is threatening to not allow any such vote unless "a majority of the majority" -- meaning Republicans -- agree to do so.
Despite the uphill battle, consensus for immigration reform continues to grow outside Washington. As Gutierrez pointed out, two media giants on opposite political ends -- the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal -- agree on this issue. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Catholic Church and other religious entities also back such legislation. And in Kern County, two groups that historically have been at odds came to an understanding.
The powerful agricultural industry and the United Farm Workers union hammered out a deal that addresses wages and caps the number of visas allowed for new workers allowed in the country in the future.
"If you ask any farmer what is the number one factor that makes their work successful, it's labor, and what we're dealing with is inadequate supply of labor," said Ryan Zananovich, a longtime table grape grower in Kern County.
Valadao admits the fiercest opposition to a pathway to citizenship comes from the ultra-conservative element of the Republican Party. He believes, though, that once he explains it to skeptics, they will understand why reform is needed.
"Yeah, there's going to be an extreme on every angle," said Valadao. Gutierrez notes that even Tea Party favorites can change, such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Rubio, says Gutierrez, has "grown, matured and evolved" his position on immigration reform and now supports legalization where at one time he opposed it calling it "amnesty." Then there's former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. He and Gutierrez have been communicating on the issue, though Ryan is keeping mostly behind the scenes on this one.
Apparently Ryan's faith is making him have some compassion.
"He told me that we, as Catholics, cannot have a permanent underclass of people exploited in America," Gutierrez said.
Just last Sunday, another congressman saw the light. In an op-ed in the Denver Post, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., wrote about comprehensive immigration reform: "It must secure our borders and provide for the effective enforcement of our immigration laws; it must contribute to the economic growth of our country; and it must be compassionate in keeping families together." And yes, he supports a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants who grew up and went to school in this country and temporary provisional residency for adults with no serious criminal record.
It's still anybody's guess if we will actually witness legislation that allows millions of people to come out from the shadows. But witnessing two congressmen from opposite parties come to the turf of conservative Bakersfield and say, "Si se puede" (Yes, we can) gives people some hope.
"In California, we are showing the country the way to do it," said Tony Bernabe, an undocumented immigrant who attended the town hall meeting.
"Republicans and Democrats talking together, being together with the community, it's happening here and for the country this is the way to go."
Jose Gaspar is a reporter for “KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News” and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar’s opinions, not necessarily The Californian’s. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.