By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - A group of Republican California lawmakers are breaking with their party's skepticism over immigration reform and asking the U.S. Congress to give immigrants a path to citizenship to help their state's heavy dependence on migrant labor for agriculture and construction.
Flanked by representatives of the state's agricultural, construction and restaurant industries, 16 Republican state senators and assembly members joined a national push to demand a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
"We're assembled today to call upon the House of Representatives to take immediate action to reform our broken immigration system," said State Senator Anthony Cannella, who represents Salinas and for years was a lone Republican voice in favor of reform. "Congress must deal with immigration directly, and in a compassionate and practical manner."
Cannella was one of 15 lawmakers who signed a letter released Thursday asking the state's Congressional delegation to "act on reform this year to put this challenge behind us." A sixteenth lawmaker, state Senator Andy Vidak of Bakersfield, sent his own letter.
A landmark immigration overhaul passed by the Democratic-led U.S. Senate in June includes a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants currently living illegally in the United States, but it faces scant chance of passage in its current form in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The California lawmakers calling for an overhaul - who comprise nearly half of the Republican delegation to the state legislature - are pushing back against the party's national leaders for a variety of reasons. The state relies heavily on its agricultural, construction and hospitality businesses, all of which depend on immigrant labor.
The state's demographics also work against a highly conservative approach to immigration: A recent study showed that 7 percent of California's population, or about 2.6 million people, are living in the country illegally.
The California Republican party has suffered years of damage politically from prior efforts to crack down on illegal immigration to the state, including backing a 1994 ballot initiative that would have denied public education, health care and other services the undocumented.
Simply calling on Congress to pass reform would not erase all those years worth of mistrust and animosity, but it is the right thing to do, Cannella said.
'REPUBLICANS CARE ABOUT YOU'
Republican State Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, who represents parts of San Diego County, said he wanted to send Latinos the message that his party understands their concerns.
"To the Spanish speakers of California: Republicans care about you," Chavez said, before reading somewhat haltingly from a statement in Spanish.
Failing to address immigration reform would have economic implications as well as political ones, said Robert Lapsley, president of the Business Roundtable of California, who also spoke at the event.
"If we don't get this done, it's going to impact our entire economy," Lapsley said.
Throughout the nation in recent months, representatives of industries that rely heavily on immigrant labor have been lobbying Republican representatives to support reform.
In Minnesota, business executives have peppered Republican U.S. Representative John Kline with questions on immigration at several private events, said Bill Blazar, a vice president at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
In Colorado, a group of six business executives who collectively donated nearly $500,000 to Republicans in the 2012 election wrote a letter in July to the state's four Republican House members last month urging them to support changes in immigration laws.
In Arizona, where state law requires police to question those they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally about their immigration status, business leaders have argued that a hard-line stance is not the political winner it once was.
In California, the farm, hospitality and construction businesses could not survive "without the hard work and skill provided by immigrant communities," said State Senator Tom Berryhill, a fourth-generation farmer and the son of a former Secretary of Agriculture.
"For Congress to put off once again enacting a policy that allows a reasonable path to citizenship for a group of people that contribute so much to the California economy is just wrong," said Berryhill, who represents parts of the Sierra Nevada and the agricultural San Joaquin Valley.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)