Nearly one quarter of U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall's constituents were born outside the United States. His office handles stacks of cases from immigrants trying to navigate the country's labyrinthine laws.
And the Lawrenceville Republican firmly opposes the Senate-passed immigration bill. He is eager for the House to act but does not want that action to include any new pathways to citizenship, as the Senate bill does, for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Woodall's stance represents the distance between Republican Party leaders -- who see a big immigration bill in part as a way to court Hispanic voters who wield increasing political clout -- and the House GOP rank-and-file, nestled in safe districts where their only political peril is on the right. And a trip around his district reflects the political incentives for Woodall's position.
GOP pollster Matt Towery of InsiderAdvantage said a vote in favor of a new path to citizenship would spark a contentious primary.
"We do have very strong activists on the anti-immigration reform side who are willing to go after anyone who they feel is not in lock with them," Towery said. "This is an issue not about defeat, but more an issue of, "Do I have a placid summer or do I want to work for my re-election?' "
Woodall insists he just wants to make strong policy and that primary challengers are "good for the process." The second-term congressman and former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. John Linder easily won a primary last year.
Woodall does not traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric and says immigrants who came to the U.S. "the right way" do not want to see instant legal status and potential citizenship for those who did not.
Across his district, the issue evokes a wide range of responses. But the hard-liners wield some of the most political influence.
A diverse district
The Seventh District stretches up to Cumming, deep into conservative Forsyth County. It also encompasses a large chunk of Gwinnett County, taking in Buford, Duluth, Lawrenceville, Norcross and Suwanee. Its diversity is evident along Buford Highway, which is flanked by numerous auto body shops, used car dealerships, restaurants and grocery stores run by Asian and Hispanic immigrants.
Ana Michelle Morales lives in Lawrenceville and advocates the Senate's approach to construct a new path to citizenship.
Relatives illegally brought Morales across the Mexican border when she was six. In May, the government granted the Dunwoody High School graduate a two-year reprieve from deportation. An older sister also has a deportation deferral. Morales' two younger sisters, born here, are U.S. citizens. Her parents don't have legal status in the U.S.
The record numbers of deportations by the Obama administration are splitting up families, Morales complained. She wants the government to stop expelling people who don't have serious criminal records. And she wants Congress to approve a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Becoming a U.S. citizen, she said, would help her afford college and study to become an immigration attorney.
"There are tons of Latinos in Gwinnett," said Morales, who works for the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. "They have homes there. You can't move a community from an area. They should feel welcome."
Travis Kim is more concerned with streamlining the process for new immigrants, one aspect of the Senate bill the House could tackle as well. He came to the U.S. from South Korea on a student visa about 30 years ago and eventually became a U.S. citizen. He married a Chinese immigrant, also a U.S. citizen. They have two teenage children who were born here. Kim lives in Marietta and runs a used car dealership in Duluth.
Kim emphasized how many immigrants contribute to Georgia's economy by opening businesses or laboring in the state's $71.1 billion agricultural industry. He sympathizes with immigrants like Morales who were illegally brought to the U.S. as children. But he said the key to solving the problem is fixing the legal immigration system.
He pointed to how many immigrants must wait years or even decades to legally migrate to this country. Kim said such long waits could encourage illegal immigration.
"I have a brother and a sister" in South Korea, said Kim, president of the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta. "They want to come here. Even though I have been here long enough and I am kind of situated -- I am a citizen -- for them to come here to live is so difficult and very time-consuming, so we don't even bother."
Census records show that in the Seventh Congressional District 155,475 people were born in other countries, the most among Georgia's 14 House districts. Of those, 71,603 are naturalized U.S. citizens and 83,872 are not U.S. citizens. The estimated 120,701 Hispanic residents are the most in any of Georgia's districts.
But Hispanics and Asians made up only 1.9 percent of Republican primary voters in the district 2012, and in such a GOP-heavy district, that's where elections are decided.
Jason Thompson, a Suwanee resident and chairman of the Republican Party's Seventh Congressional District unit, opposes the Senate bill. He said he doesn't know if it would be practical to try to make all 11 million illegal immigrants return to their home countries. But granting them a path to citizenship wouldn't be fair to immigrants who followed the rules and came here legally, he said.
"In my opinion, we have to just at least try to stop the bleeding. By that I mean the porous borders," said Thompson, a criminal defense attorney.
Towery said inner-suburb Republicans are more likely to support a Senate-style approach to immigration reform, but activists hold disproportionate sway because they can organize opposition.
Steve Ramey, co-chairman of the Gwinnett Tea Party, said illegal immigrants should return to their home countries and apply for citizenship through existing legal channels. Ramey has vowed to help find primary opponents for GOP House members who vote for legalizing illegal immigrants.
Ramey complained that some U.S. employers are displacing U.S. workers by hiring illegal immigrants. He is also concerned about the increased taxpayer costs that come from illegal immigrants enrolling in public schools.
"They are telling me it is impossible to deport these people," said Ramey who publishes a career-guide magazine for colleges. "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Well, how do you deport illegals? One at a time, if necessary.
"You can do it to a point where they would begin to leave on their own accord, knowing they were going to be caught and knowing they were going to be expelled."
The path in Congress
The Senate bill includes a 13-year path to citizenship for people here illegally, $40 billion for a law enforcement "surge" at the Mexican border, more visas for high-skilled immigrants and a new guest farmworker program.
Last week House Republicans wrangled behind closed doors on immigration and emerged without a clear consensus other than to take their time and move bills in stages.
House committees have put forth bills to make employers across the country use the E-Verify program, give states and localities new authority to enforce federal immigration laws and demand the Department of Homeland Security "achieve situational awareness" of the border within two years. Woodall said all discussions must start with "rule of law" and continue with declogging the decades-long citizenship and green card process, particularly for immigrants' families.
"Let's fix those things that we can agree on," Woodall said.
In Wednesday's closed-door meeting, House leaders floated the idea of bringing back the DREAM Act allowing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants brought here illegally as children who complete educational or military service goals. Woodall said most Republicans agree children should be in a separate immigration category but there are "dozens of different options" for handling that.
University of California at San Diego political science professor Tom Wong said even the DREAM Act would not pass in the House, based on a statistical analysis he assembled of House members' past positions.
Wong said only a few Republican-held districts have enough Hispanics and Asians to make quashing a new path to citizenship a political millstone, but it's enough to tip the balance of power. "At this point here politically, it seems like the House is risking its majority control by taking this piecemeal approach, which a lot of advocates see as a way to ensure that a path to citizenship does not happen," Wong said.
Such election-based talk riles Woodall.
"It is so heartbreaking to me that the political class has hijacked this issue that is central to who we are as Americans," he said.
"They are focusing a lot on politics and what's good for the polls. What we are going to focus on is that same light that has attracted so many people to this country."