Tied with Florida as the second-largest Republican delegation outside Texas, California's 19-member GOP contingent in the House of Representatives could play a key role this year in formulating an enforcement-focused tone in the national immigration debate.
Some California Republicans wasted little time co-sponsoring a bill, introduced Thursday, that would stop the United States from granting automatic citizenship to children born in the country to illegal immigrants.
"It is unfair to grant birthright citizenship to children of illegal immigrants because it undermines the intention of the Fourteenth Amendment, rewards those that have recklessly broken our nation's immigration laws, and costs American taxpayers billions annually," said Rep. Gary Miller, R-Diamond Bar, in a statement Thursday.
The California Republican delegation represents a diverse constituency that includes nearly 4 million Latino residents -- Miller's Southern California district, for instance, is 27.5 percent Latino -- but the hard line that many of its members espouse worries strategists concerned about the party's long-term relevance in the state.
"I think a minority of Republican Congress members, especially in Southern California, have hijacked this issue," said Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a national advocacy group. "It seems to me that some of them unfortunately don't want to have a constructive discussion on immigration. However, I think it would be wrong for us to assume the majority of Republicans think like them."
Aguilar, who was chief of the national Office of Citizenship in the Bush administration, argues that Republicans need to transition their brand from the "anti-illegal immigration party to the pro-legal immigration party.
"That's the only way the Republican party can survive in California," he added.
He said he doubted, however, that California's House Republicans would do much to constructively engage with the state's Latino population, who vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
GOP consultant Hector Barajas was more optimistic, citing the moderate immigration tone of new Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, whose role will make him the most powerful California Republican.
"He is from (the Central Valley). He gets it. He understands the importance of creating alliances, and not looking at this issue in a demonizing way," Barajas said.
McCarthy was among a minority of California Republicans who did not sign on to the birthright citizenship bill in the last Congress, and he and other Central Valley moderates are unlikely to take the divisive measure up in the new Congress, Barajas said. Lack of support from influential Republicans would leave the bill a symbolic, rhetorical measure that would have no chance of passing, he said.
The other Californians who do support it, Barajas warned, should heed the demographic changes that could lessen their long-term relevance in the state. An independent redistricting commission that will redraw congressional districts this year could make changes that might doom Central Valley and Inland Empire Republicans who do not engage Latino constituents.
"They may end up finding themselves with a whole new reality: A lot more Latinos, a lot more people of color and minorities," Barajas said. Those minority voters, he said, are "going to start paying more attention if they feel like they're being attacked as a group."
Though California's Republican representatives are all white men, they are not a monolithic voting bloc in Congress. Central Valley Republicans have tended to be more moderate than their suburban Southern California counterparts, especially on issues that involve agriculture. Illegal immigrants form the bulk of the farm labor force in California.
But the Central Valley champion of an agricultural immigration bargain, Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, retired this week and was replaced by Rep. Jeff Denham, who has not yet articulated how his immigration views might differ from his predecessor.
"The reality is that you are never going to get a reform bill unless they deal with a guest worker program or a humane way to deal with the people here already," Radanovich said this week. "I'm hopeful there's still a contingent of San Joaquin Republicans who raise the flag for guest workers, but I think that's still a question. I was the main one who did, and I'm not there."
Among the California Republicans who could have an influential role in drafting immigration policy is Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, who last year was a minority member of the immigration subcommittee when it was chaired by San Jose Democrat Zoe Lofgren.
Gallegly aides said the composition of the new immigration subcommittee has not yet been decided, but the Simi Valley congressman is likely to work alongside Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who is one of the most vocal critics of illegal immigration in Congress. King was the one who introduced the bill this week that would revoke birthright citizenship, and has long been expected to chair the immigration subcommittee under a Republican majority.
Some influential lawmakers, such as Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, expressed frustration last year with the Democratic approach to immigration, but it's not yet clear what approach they will take with majority power.
California GOP chairman Ron Nehring declined to speculate how the delegation would approach immigration policy, but he said several representatives, including Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, are likely to take an active and influential role.
"California's delegation is very influential, number one, because of its size and, number two, because you have so many people in senior leadership," Nehring said.
But in a state where 36 percent of residents are Latino, liberal immigrant advocates promise a Latino backlash if the delegation leans toward a hard-line position.
The average Republican congressional district in California is about 28 percent Latino, but many are not citizens or are citizens not yet old enough to vote.
"Even if you have 20 percent Latinos in your district, chances are they're only going to be about 10 percent of your voters," said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, who chairs UC Berkeley's Center for Latino Policy Research.
In the long term, however, many of those Latinos will eventually become voters, she said.