Rep. Tom Cotton opposes establishing a path to legal status for immigrants illegally until U.S. borders are more secure and visa laws more strictly enforced.(Photo: Richard Rasmussen, AP)
WASHINGTON - Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton isn't swayed by the bipartisan coalition that passed a comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate or the warnings by senior Republicans that the GOP needs to act on the issue to appeal to Latino voters.
And with that, the lanky freshman represents the significant hurdles facing efforts to craft immigration legislation that might possibly be able pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
"The Senate approach is legalization first and enforcement later, maybe - but probably never," Cotton said in an interview with Capital Download, USA TODAY's weekly newsmaker video series. In views he says are widely shared among House Republicans, he opposes establishing a path to legal status for immigrants here illegally until U.S. borders are more secure and visa laws more strictly enforced.
"If they insist upon legalization before any of those steps, then it is not likely that we are going to pass real and valuable immigration reform this Congress," he says. He notes that Senate Democrats have said that establishing a path to citizenship for some of the estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally is essential to a bill.
His opposition to establishing a way to achieve legal status extends to the "Dreamers," the young people who have grown up in the United States after being brought here by their parents.
"We'd have to know that we aren't encouraging the next wave of illegal immigration," he said. "If you're a mom or dad and you see the opportunity that has been provided to someone else's child who took them to the United States illegally, to become a legal American and maybe a citizen, who wouldn't take that risk?"
Cotton, 36, has been in office for only six months, but he is part of a new breed of Republicans who haven't hesitated to challenge their own leadership, taking a harder line on some issues and being less willing to cut political deals.
"I do think that injection of new blood and kind of fresh thinking, as opposed to the old way of thinking, is good for Congress," he said. "I saw that when I was in the Army. It's always good to get new privates and new lieutenants who are ready to go down-range and fight America's wars."
The freshman and sophomore classes of Republican House members tend to be in the mold of former president Ronald Reagan and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Cotton said. Thatcher "said she's not a consensus politician; she's a conviction politician. And you have a lot of people who were elected in 2010 and 2012 who truly are conviction politicians."
Cotton is an Arkansas native, a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School, and an Army veteran with tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's also a potential challenger next year to Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. Republican hopes of regaining control of the Senate depend on winning Democratic-held seats in red states such as Arkansas.
"I do hear from a lot of Arkansans, frankly Democrats and Republicans alike, who encourage me to think about that race, and I'm grateful for that," Cotton said, "but in the end, it will be prayerful consideration and deliberations with my family" that determine his decision.