Texas Congressman Pulled In Two Directions Over Immigration
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The heat this week in Corpus Christi, Texas, is not just the weather. It's also political, and it's felt especially by Blake Farenthold. He's a Republican who represents the area in Congress. And on his summer break from Washington, his constituents are giving him an earful about immigration. Half of Farenthold's district is Hispanic, and supporters of an overhaul hope to persuade him to take up their cause. His conservative supporters hope otherwise. From Corpus Christi, here's NPR's David Welna.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It's just before noon, Wednesday, and dozens of people are standing outside the building housing Congressman Blake Farenthold's Corpus Christi office. They're white and mostly gray-haired, and they wave hand-lettered signs that read no to amnesty, obey the rule of law and legal immigration. Local GOP activist Mike Bergsma says he and others got wind that pro-immigrant activists will be heading for Farenthold's office.
MIKE BERGSMA: We have a couple of folks that get their emails. And so we knew they were going to do something. And we thought we'd show our support for Blake.
WELNA: Many sport stickers that proclaim deport all illegals. Virginia Hindman, who heads the San Patricio County Republican Women, says the all on her sticker may be an overstatement.
VIRGINIA HINDMAN: You're not going to be able to get rid of all of them. We're going to have to do something, but we - why would we want to do it first before we seal the border? If we say, OK, everybody gets amnesty, then you think that border is not going to be just, you know, they're going to be trampling it down to get over here.
WELNA: At noon, a large Hispanic man steps before the poster-wielding counter-protesters.
JOSEPH RAMIREZ: Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Joseph Ramirez. I'm here today with the coalition - a community of coalitions in support of immigration reform.
WELNA: Joseph Ramirez is the Democratic Party chairman of Nueces County, which includes Corpus Christi. He asks all present to bow their heads in prayer.
RAMIREZ: Heavenly Father, we come to you today. We ask that you be with the many - the 11 million immigrants here in our country, that you may be able to help them, for once, come out of the shadows and into the light.
WELNA: Standing at his side is 20-year-old Miguel Porfirio. He says his parents immigrated illegally from Mexico and brought him, as a 4-year-old, to Corpus Christi.
MIGUEL PORFIRIO: I came here because my parents told me to. I didn't have a say, and I was terrified. I knew right away what we were doing was not right. But at the same time, I knew that we did not have a choice.
WELNA: Then things turned ugly.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Why are you here?
PORFIRIO: I came here in search for a better life.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Why?
PORFIRIO: Because there's no other way. I came here...
WELNA: The 20-year-old starts pleading.
PORFIRIO: All I want to do is to be heard.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Let him speak. Let him speak. Let him speak. Let him speak. Let him speak.
WELNA: Amidst all the shouting, the pro-immigration activists head up to Farenthold's office. It turns out he's in Dallas for the day. Still, they leave him a petition with 10,000 signatures. It's read aloud by Porfirio, one of the so-called DREAMers brought illegally as children, who, by President Obama's order can remain in the country for two years without fear of deportation. And it chides Farenthold for approving a measure to reverse that, brought up in June by Iowa Republican Steve King.
PORFIRIO: Dear Representative Farenthold, America deserves a vote on immigration reform with a roadmap to citizenship. Steve King got his vote against DREAMers, and you gave him your vote on the deportation of DREAMers earlier this summer. When do we get our vote on reform with a path to citizenship?
WELNA: In an interview yesterday, Farenthold sidesteps a question about such a vote.
REPRESENTATIVE BLAKE FARENTHOLD: I will support a path to citizenship if it does not fall within the definition of amnesty, and we've got to define what amnesty is in this country.
WELNA: Farenthold says he's aware that many of his Hispanic constituents and others want that path to citizenship to become law, but he says he also represents conservatives who don't want that.
FARENTHOLD: That's why I think my office is at the center of the debate because I have a much more open mind, I think, than some of my colleagues.
WELNA: Still, the congressman readily acknowledges it was his office that summoned the counter-protesters to head off the petition group. Redistricting last year reduced the number of his Latino constituents. And Robert Benzek(ph), a political consultant who knows the district well, says Farenthold is in no danger now of losing his seat, even though half his constituents are Hispanic.
ROBERT BENZEK: But when you take into consideration the young people who cannot register to vote and a certain number of undocumented workers in particularly the lower levels of education, then the numbers are simply not there for a Democrat to do well in this congressional district.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) we've met several times.
FARENTHOLD: Hey, how are you?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Blake, good to see you.
WELNA: Had an open house last night at Farenthold's district office. He stands at the door showering visitors with greetings. Most are friends and fellow Republicans, but someone else has come.
FARENTHOLD: Hi. How are you?
PORFIRIO: I'm Miguel Porfirio. I'm a DREAMer. I've been living in this country for 16 years.
WELNA: Farenthold is gracious with Porfirio. He assures him he's working on a bill that would let him and others like him stay in the country permanently.
FARENTHOLD: You guys didn't do anything wrong, and you need to come first.
WELNA: It would take only 17 House Republicans to join Democrats and force an up or down vote on the immigration bill passed by the Senate, which does provide a path to citizenship. But Farenthold says count him out on that. He may be caught in the middle and feeling the heat here, but he won this district with 57 percent of the vote last November. He appears confident of doing it again next year. David Welna, NPR News, Corpus Christi, Texas.