Immigration first clash of 2014 race

Erin Bilbray thinks Rep. Joe Heck is trying to have things both ways when it comes to immigration reform.

The Democratic political trainer who announced her candidacy for Heck’s 3rd Congressional District seat last week said Heck’s remarks on a bi-partisan comprehensive immigration bill are designed to help him politically more than pass legislation.

“I think this is kind of classic Congressman Heck,” Bilbray said in an interview. “He’s a political opportunist.”

In a town hall meeting last week, and again at a breakfast meeting of Hispanics in Politics, Heck repeated his position: He favors a pathway to citizenship in the Senate bill, but wouldn’t vote for it because the tough border-security provisions can be waived in a decade’s time.

It’s an academic question, anyway. House Speaker John Boehner says the Senate bill will not come up for debate in the House. Instead, lawmakers will pass a series of bills, and a compromise will be hammered out with senators in a conference committee.

But for Bilbray, it’s not enough to simply say you’re in favor of the most popular part of the bill — the pathway to citizenship, important to the Hispanic community, a rapidly growing and increasingly influential part of the electorate — while withholding support for the bill as a whole. “That’s being a political opportunist,” she said.

For example, Bilbray says she’s not happy with the fact that it will take an estimated 13 years for illegal immigrants currently in the country to obtain citizenship under the Senate version of the bill. She’d rather it be shorter. But she’s willing to accept that in order to get the entire bill passed.

It’s a calculation that Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller seems to have made as well. “We have a bill where the good outweighs the bad,” Heller told the Review-Journal’s Steve Tetreault last month. Heller, notably, waited to lend his support to the bill until the border security provision was added, the very provision that Heck says is in doubt because of the waiver authority.

Another point of contention between Bilbray and Heck: birthright citizenship, the idea that a child born on U.S. soil is automatically a citizen. Heck seemed to distance himself from the concept last week, saying that a comprehensive immigration bill might be a stepping off point to debate whether birthright citizenship should continue as U.S. policy. But Bilbray says she’s in favor of it.

(So, by the way, is the U.S. Supreme Court, which has interpreted the 14th Amendment to the Constitution to ensure birthright citizenship. “The Constitution should not be fiddled with,” Bilbray says.)

Heck’s spokesman, Greg Lemon, says Heck hasn’t been shy about reiterating his position — he’s said it on YouTube, in media interviews and in town halls, where he’s been subjected to catcalls from his own party. “He’s been doing the exact opposite of dodging the issue,” Lemon said in an email.

Moreover, Lemon said agreeing with some parts of a bill and disagreeing with others is not uncommon under the Capitol dome. “Once that (conference) committee report is produced, (Heck) will evaluate it just like he does any other bill,” Lemon said. “If the things he has repeatedly talked about wanting to see in a bill are there, he will support it. If those things are not there, he won’t. That isn’t dodging the issue or trying to have it both ways.”

Bilbray disagrees. The goal, she says, is to get a reform plan passed, even if its one that has flaws. “They say they favor a pathway to citizenship,” she said of the GOP, but the proof will come in the final vote. “We’ve got to get this done now,” she said.

On that, and that alone, Bilbray and Heck seem to be in agreement.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or

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