Alabama Republicans Divided Over Hispanics on Immigration

As U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions becomes the lead critic of a bill that would let undocumented immigrants win citizenship, the Republican Party in his home state of Alabama is pushing in the opposite direction.

Bill Armistead, party chairman, supports immigration changes to appeal to Hispanic voters. Sessions has opposed a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, doesn’t want more guest workers and has called for months of hearings to comb through “every aspect” of changes.

A national appeal to Hispanics is splitting Republicans who just two years ago pushed through one of the nation’s most punishing immigration laws. The party has controlled Alabama’s legislature and governor’s office since the 2010 elections. Its presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, in November won more than 60 percent of the vote even as his national campaign foundered when he failed to draw minority support.

“It’s a very touchy subject,” said John Como, 66, the Republican chairman of Madison County, which abuts Tennessee. “We’re a nation of laws and we should act like it. We also have to stop treating Hispanics like they don’t belong here.”

In Washington, a bipartisan group of senators is preparing legislation offering the undocumented a path to legal status. Finishing details of agreements this week on issues ranging from tougher border security to visas for foreign farmworkers, they are aiming to unveil legislation by next week.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat planning a hearing April 17, said he expects to “have legislative language to review by the time of the hearing.”

Hispanics Targeted

Targeting Hispanic voters is the key to success, according to a March 18 report commissioned by the Republican National Committee. The report called on the party to “embrace and champion comprehensive” changes to immigration law.

In Alabama, the challenge for Republicans is appealing to Hispanics while reassuring their own base of voters.

Undocumented workers “ought to be rounded up, hung from a tree and shot,” said Jimmy Crain, 72, outside a hardware store about three miles from Sessions’s home in Mobile. “The only reform I want is to shut it down.”

Crain, a retired U.S. Forest Service worker with short white hair, said he tends to vote Republican. The Mobile resident said he’d oppose the effort to recruit Hispanics if it meant creating a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

Rocio Siddiqui, a Costa Rica native who owns a restaurant in Mobile, said tough Republican policies make her less likely to vote for the party’s candidates.

“I’ve been here for 23 years and still I feel like a foreigner,” said Siddiqui, 46, as mariachi music played in the background. “I came here the right, legal way. But they make us feel like we’re disposable.”

Public Opinion

Nationally, a majority of Republican voters say immigrants burden the country, while majorities of Democrats and independents say they strengthen it, according to a survey conducted March 13-17 by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan group.

The push from the Republican leaders -- in Alabama and Washington -- to parlay an immigration law into Hispanic support follows President Barack Obama’s re-election in November, when the Democrat won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, up 4 percentage points from 2008, according to exit polls.

His victory came after Republicans pushed stringent crackdowns on immigrants to encourage them to “self deport.”

Alabama’s Laws

Alabama was one of five states that in 2011 passed laws modeled on a 2010 Arizona measure that was largely invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court. An appellate court in Atlanta ruled that many of Alabama’s requirements also aren’t constitutional. The law let police arrest people after traffic stops if they couldn’t prove legal status and barred undocumented workers from renting a room or lodging for more than one night. It also required schools to check students’ citizenship.

The law revived memories of Alabama’s intransigence during the civil-rights era, when governors George Wallace and John Patterson fought to preserve so-called Jim Crow rules that oppressed blacks. The immigration law was called “Juan Crow.”

Governor Robert Bentley, who signed it, hasn’t pushed new immigration measures since November. Asked in February whether he backed off for fear of alienating Hispanic voters, Bentley said states adopted the laws because the federal government wasn’t doing enough. Bentley’s spokeswoman Jennifer Ardis declined a request to speak with the governor this week.

Sessions, 66, declined an interview through his spokesman, Stephen Miller. The senator wrote in a March 29 column for the National Review website that the 7.7 percent unemployment rate in the U.S. was too high to expand the guest worker program. He opposed a path to citizenship in 2007, calling it “amnesty” for undocumented residents.

Senate Plan

The bipartisan group of senators has made progress on crucial issues in recent days: On visas for farmworkers and other low-skilled workers, and on a commitment to improving border security as a prerequisite for any legislation.

The senators will propose continuous surveillance of 100 percent of the U.S. border, $3 billion for the Department of Homeland Security to develop a plan in six months for 90 percent effectiveness in its patrols, and preventing any provisional legal status for the undocumented until that plan is in place, according to a person familiar with the talks.

The goal is achievable hurdles that tie border security directly to any pathway to citizenship, another person familiar with the talks said. Homeland Security could not grant green cards for U.S. residency until an entry-exit system ensures that visa holders leave the country when they are supposed to and a system is in place for verifying that businesses aren’t employing undocumented workers.

A bipartisan group in the House also is working on a plan, and House Democrats plan to unveil their own plan today.

Fairness Proposed

In Alabama, Armistead, 68, is advocating a “fair” bill that allows the undocumented to become legal.

“We have to have a consensus among the Republicans as to how we want to approach this,” Armistead said. “We can’t be going in multiple directions.”

Hispanics account for about 4 percent of the state’s 4.82 million people, compared with 16.7 percent across the country, Census data show. There are no Hispanics in the state legislature, said Frank Barragan, founder of Coastal Coalition for Immigrant Justice, a Mobile-based community group.

Armistead is recruiting Hispanic candidates and voters. The goal has backing from party activists, though there are disagreements on how to accomplish it, said Jim Zeanah, Republican chairman of Tuscaloosa County, west of Birmingham. Zeanah said members are divided over whether to “turn a blind eye” and provide undocumented workers citizenship.

“We may have to swallow hard,” said Zeanah, 69.

Issues Overshadowed

Chairman Freddy Ard, 58, of Shelby County, south of Birmingham, said opposing a federal immigration overhaul would overshadow the party’s message on social and fiscal issues.

“It clouds everything else,” said Ard, who nonetheless opposes a path to citizenship.

The tone set in Alabama contributes to the perceptions of Republicans nationwide, said Jerry Lathan, 56, finance chairman of the state party and owner of a Mobile historic-preservation business.

“This is a great opportunity for the party,” Lathan said. “I hope Jeff finds a way to get comfortable with it in a way that deals with our principles and deals with the issue.”

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