ALLOWAY, N.J. (USATODAY.com) - Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo represents a South Jersey congressional district with a sizable Hispanic population, farmlands that employ migrant workers, an influential labor union presence and a constituency that voted twice for President Obama.
He's precisely the kind of GOP lawmaker immigration advocates said they would target over the August recess, when members of Congress return home for the longest stretch of the year.
But at a local Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting and a Rotary Club luncheon on Thursday, immigration was never mentioned.
The 10-term incumbent met with constituents in open forums where he fielded questions on the economy, the implementation of Obama's health care law, unrest in the Middle East and even how to improve local infrastructure to ease traffic to the Jersey shore.
"It's not coming up," LoBiondo said in interview. "It is a big issue nationally, but in this district it's just not something on people's minds."
It's not because advocates aren't trying. LoBiondo has not staked out any hard-line positions on immigration, and his is one of 17 congressional districts the House Democrats' campaign operation said they would target on immigration in August with "media tactics, messaging amplification and community outreach," according to a memo.
Last week, Organizing for Action, an outside political group promoting Obama's agenda, used its local New Jersey Twitter account in an effort to organize supporters to appear at a LoBiondo event in Cape May to show support for an immigration overhaul. Jason Galanes, LoBiondo's spokesman, notified event organizers and local police that protesters might be in attendance. It was not necessary. "No one showed up," Galanes said.
LoBiondo's lack of political pressure to support or oppose immigration overhaul has been reflected across Republican congressional districts during the August recess.
Supporters of overhauling the nation's immigration laws see the muted month as perhaps a partial victory, proof that Republicans who have indicated they could support a path to legalizing undocumented immigrants will not face the harsh backlash that has been anticipated from conservatives back home.
"The big story of the August recess is that we haven't seen what some had predicted - this major anti-immigrant movement where members of Congress would be heckled into inaction," said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, which launched a $400,000 radio advertisement campaign to encourage Republicans to support immigration changes.
Those who oppose granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants saw something else in August - a conservative movement focused more on dismantling the president's health care law than worrying about an immigration overhaul package that faces an uncertain future in the GOP-led U.S. House.
"There's only so much outrage a group of people can sustain, and the opponents of Obamacare and the opponents of amnesty overlap," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Services, which opposes granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants. "I don't think anybody won August because it was kind of a wash."
That rings true for Andy Merendino, a small-business owner from Carneys Point, N.J., who attended Thursday's breakfast and questioned LoBiondo on the debt and the economy. In an interview, Merendino said he cares about immigration and opposes a path to citizenship, but he is more concerned about the implementation of the health care law. "That's going to affect way more people. It affects every citizen, and it's not going to end well," he said.
David Wasserman, a non-partisan election analyst forThe Cook Political Report, said it has been difficult for Democrats and immigration advocacy groups to apply pressure to a critical mass of Republicans to support a comprehensive overhaul because so few represent competitive districts with Hispanic populations.
There are only eight GOP-held congressional districts that have a Hispanic population above 10% that are currently rated competitively byCook.
"I don't think the noise level is that high in these districts," Wasserman said, particularly compared with the town hall meetings in the summer of 2009 during the health care debate. "There's a much different feel. There's just not a sense of anticipation about what the House will do. I don't think most people see an immigration bill passing the House as imminent," he said.
There have been some instances of Republicans facing heat for their stance on immigration.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah,had to turn Hispanics awayfrom his Salt Lake City office this week when they came to protest his proposal to grant legal status, but never citizenship, to undocumented immigrants. About1,000 people protestedoutside the Bakersfield office of the House's No. 3 Republican, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to push him to support citizenship.
On the other side, Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., was constantly interrupted during a speech in Gardendale, Ala., over his support for a plan to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants. When he would say "undocumented" people would say "illegal." When he said "pathway to citizenship" people would say "no."
"Call me a cop-out, but my Christian beliefs and principals tell me that we don't split up families," Bachus said.
But for the most part, Republicans representing safe seats have not witnessed a notable rise in constituent interest on the issue. At a Lyman, S.C., town hall meeting earlier this month, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a member of the Judiciary Committee with jurisdiction over immigration, also faced no questions on it.
For the most part, Gowdy's constituents support his position that the House should tackle immigration with a piecemeal approach, in contrast to the Senate-passed comprehensive bill that provides a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
"When they come in illegally and break our laws to get in here and then expect us to bend over backward to give them this and give them that with 23 million Americans still looking for work, I say no. No way," said John Price, 75, a retired nuclear engineer.
The muted interactions over the hot-button issue is also partly explained by a waning interest by lawmakers to hold public town hall-style meetings because they have become easy targets for activists.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., represents a nearly 20% Hispanic district. His greatest re-election threat is a primary if he supported a comprehensive approach.
In an interview, Gosar made it clear that's not going to happen: He says it would be wrong to reward illegal immigrants by giving them a path to citizenship, even if they were brought here as children. "It's a crappy bill," he said of the Senate bill.
Contributing: Ron Barnett in South Carolina, Marty Roney in Alabama and Dennis Wagner in Arizona.