1. Florida Politics

Republican Rep. Dennis Ross illustrates challenges of immigration reform (watch)

Rep. Dennis Ross says he cannot support a plan that includes a path to citizenship.
Rep. Dennis Ross says he cannot support a plan that includes a path to citizenship.
Published Feb. 20, 2014

LAKELAND — U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross knows their faces and names.

Over the past year, immigration reform activists have shown up at his home, camped on the lawn of his church and visited him in Washington. They spent an entire month demonstrating outside his office and pack every town hall he holds, including one Tuesday in Plant City.

"I want you to look at this room and see the makeup, how many of us are Hispanic," said a woman named Guadalupe, who arrived in Plant City as an undocumented resident three decades ago to work in the strawberry fields. "You can continue to ignore our wishes, you can continue to ignore us. But pretty soon, you won't have a choice."

Ross, R-Lakeland, has become one of the most targeted lawmakers in the country as the struggle over immigration continues. His district, which includes parts of Hillsborough and Polk counties, is rich with agriculture and activists are pushing him to support comprehensive legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship for millions of people.

But the onslaught has not swayed Ross, a former state legislator sent to Washington amid the 2010 tea party wave.

"We should all acknowledge that we have a broken system and then we should start taking it one step at a time," he told Guadalupe. "A comprehensive approach that we saw does not work in the past is not going to work again."

The sentiment represents a sizable voice of the Republican-controlled House, which has rejected the sweeping legislation passed last year by the Democratic-led Senate. Even a piecemeal approach Ross prefers has come to a halt with Speaker John Boehner earlier this month all but declaring the issue dead, eager to avoid a bitter intra-party fight as the midterms approach.

"I think his strategy is 'Let's stay on Obamacare, let's not do anything that's going to distract us or fracture us like an immigration bill,' " Ross said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

With prospects looking remote, activists are trying a more personal, if confrontational approach, warning legislators in evolving districts, such as Ross and fellow Republican Rep. Daniel Webster of Orlando, that demographics are shifting.

"We're at a crossroads right now," said Ana Delarosa, state director for Mi Familia Vota, which registers Hispanic voters. "Trying to decide how much longer we give leeway to the House to move forward. All we can do is hold them accountable at the ballot box."

There were more than 106,000 Hispanics in Polk County in 2010 (18 percent population) up from 46,000 (9.5 percent) in 2000. The district is still predominantly Republican, with white voters outpacing Hispanics by more than 272,000. Ross ran unopposed in 2012 and is favored over a Democratic opponent in November. He said his immigration stance owes to personal conviction but agreed he would probably draw a Republican challenger if he embraced comprehensive reform.

Even so, November polling on behalf of reform advocates indicated 78 percent of people in the district said they would support a plan that would increase border security; block employers from hiring undocumented immigrants; and make sure that undocumented immigrants already in the United States pass a criminal background check before gaining legal status and, eventually, citizenship.

Ross' town hall meeting Tuesday got heated and he expressed frustration at being cast as obstinate, insisting he wants his party to move on some reform — just not as far as they want him to go. "I understand your plight, believe me, I do," he said.

On Wednesday, he allowed a group to meet with his staff in Lakeland. Afterward they said they were still unsatisfied.

"We can't give up. We're taking action. All this is doing is showing he's not a man of action," said Daniel Barajas, 31, executive director of Young American Dreamers, which represents immigrants in Polk County, including some facing deportation or who have been granted temporary legal status under a program initiated by President Barack Obama.

Ross supports a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children by no fault of their own — the so-called Dreamers. He also backs a guest worker program, which would benefit the agriculture industry in his district, and more visas for highly educated students.

But he says he cannot support a plan that includes a path to citizenship — something many conservatives consider amnesty.

"The integrity of our immigration system needs to be maintained," Ross said.

"We cheapen it, we do a disservice to those who came before us, who earn their citizenship, if we were just to simply say, 'Okay, in 15 years you automatically become a citizen.' There has to be some earned aspect to it."

That "earned" line, common among Republicans, angers reform advocates who note the Senate-approved bill requires a person to pass a criminal background check, pay fines and wait 13 years before becoming eligible for citizenship. They also reject GOP calls for more border security noting the billions in additional spending under Obama and record deportations in recent years.

Ross, who reminds audiences his ancestors were immigrants from Hungary, says the GOP needs to eventually tackle the issue. Obama was lifted to victory in part by overwhelming support from Hispanics, turned off by Republican rhetoric on immigration.

"If we would at least address it, even in a piecemeal fashion, we would gain some credibility," he said. "It's a broken system. But how do we address it? We need to look at it as a triage and find out what's the worst parts and what parts can we find consensus. Doing nothing is probably not a good tack for us."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.