As bipartisan immigration legislation takes shape in Congress to grant legal status to the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, a quiet civil war is raging in the Republican Party on the issue.
Republican leaders and many top party strategists are embracing the effort as a political imperative for a party smarting from its demographically driven drubbing in 2012. Meanwhile, a vocal law-and-order faction -- including activists who form the backbone of the party’s electoral base -- is increasingly motivated to block it, as it has done with previous attempts to revamp immigration policy.
The competing camps were on display last week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Maryland, where organizers gave prominent stage time to supporters of a broad immigration rewrite while relegating opponents to unofficial side events, neglecting even to mention them in the event’s printed schedule. Ignoring the snub, activists peddled books and DVDs with messages bashing illegal immigration and milled around the hallways lamenting what they described as the softening of their party on a core value -- the opposition to “amnesty” for those here illegally.
“It’s so sad, really, that elites on both sides are just trying to stuff amnesty down our throats, and the American people want no part of it,” said J.D. Hayworth, a former Republican congressman from Arizona who is now a news commentator. “To say that Republicans are all for this now is more than an illusion -- it’s a delusion. Conservatives are not going to accept this kind of lecturing and hectoring on this issue from the so-called wise men.”
It’s the latest sign of fissures among Republicans as leaders work to recast their message and rebrand their party, debating among themselves whether success in future state and national elections will come from changing course or from rededicating themselves to core positions. In a top-to-bottom review unveiled today, Republican officials said their party “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” or see its appeal “continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
While some Republicans have long supported immigration-law changes that would strengthen border security while allowing current undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally, the party has been dominated by a faction that termed such an approach “amnesty” and threatened to punish at the ballot box any lawmaker who countenanced it.
“In order to be resurrected, we’ve got to have a different message, particularly on this issue,” Republican pollster and political consultant Whit Ayres said during a March 14 CPAC panel that featured five supporters -- and no opponents -- of an immigration-policy overhaul, a Senate version of which is expected to be finalized as early as this week and unveiled in early April.
“If we are going to stop the tide of secular socialism, we need more allies,” Ayres explained, referring to the fastest-growing voting bloc, Hispanics -- 71 percent of whom supported President Barack Obama in 2012. “Don’t you think,” he asked, “that a group of incredibly family-oriented, hardworking, church-going, entrepreneurial, spiritual people might be a good place to look for some more allies?”
“Legally!” came a shout from the audience.
Outside the hall, one of the sponsors of CPAC, Regnery Publishing Inc., was selling copies of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers,” with a cover asserting: “A nation of immigrants? Most of the Founders were third- or fourth-generation Americans, not recent arrivals.” Also on sale: a DVD of a 2006 documentary entitled “Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration,” which focuses on the porous U.S.-Mexico border and crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
A March 15 panel featuring Mark Krikorian, a prominent anti-amnesty activist at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research group that favors reduced immigration, never made it into the agenda distributed to CPAC attendees. Opening his remarks, Krikorian said he was there to deliver “a minor little dissent to yesterday’s infomercial in the big ballroom for amnesty” -- a reference to the pro-overhaul panel on immigration policy.
The divide is likely to intensify as the four Democratic and four Republican Senate negotiators, known as the “Gang of Eight,” present their legislation. Among the unresolved issues are the structure of future immigration flows, including whether and how to fashion a new guest-worker program for low-skilled immigrants, and whether to move away from the current emphasis on keeping families together and toward prioritizing employment criteria in admitting immigrants.
“If they’re going to sit here and poll and focus-group this to death, that’s not working -- Mitt Romney just ran a campaign of polling and focus groups and he got his butt kicked,” said Republican strategist Greg Mueller, referring to members of his party pressing for an immigration rewrite. “What a lot of pollsters won’t tell you is the number of people you lose by going for amnesty as opposed to the number of people you pick up, because the numbers do not add up. People do not want this.”
That may have been part of the reason that even leading proponents of an immigration overhaul regarded as contenders for the party’s 2016 nomination -- Florida Senator Marco Rubio and that state’s former governor, Jeb Bush -- largely steered clear of the topic in their CPAC comments.
Bush -- whose brother, George W. Bush, was the architect while in the White House of the last attempt at an immigration-law revamp in 2007 -- made a passing mention of the issue in his March 15 speech, avoiding specifics.
“As a nation, if we get immigration right -- and I hope and pray that that’s the case this year -- we’re going to stay young,” he said in comments that were tepidly received by CPAC attendees. “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on.”
Rubio, whose “Gang of Eight” is expected to offer a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, didn’t mention the issue at all in his CPAC remarks.
The House also has a bipartisan group working on legislation. Unlike the Senate plan, the House proposal is likely to stop short of citizenship for those now here illegally, offering instead some sort of legal status that is yet to be defined.
“It would be a travesty, in my opinion, to treat those who violated our laws to get here much better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States the right way,” Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican involved in that effort, said during the CPAC panel with Ayres. He blamed the media and “five Republicans who have bad rhetoric” for the perception that the party is anti-immigrant and said the best way to combat it is to enact legislation this year.
Still, the next day, billionaire Donald Trump counseled Republicans to tread carefully, contending that if currently undocumented immigrants were to become naturalized citizens, they would likely vote for Democrats.
“You have to be very, very careful, because you could say that to a certain extent, the odds aren’t looking so great right now for Republicans -- that you’re on a suicide mission,” Trump said. “You’re just not going to get those votes.”