Some Conservatives Push for a More Immigrant-Friendly GOP

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Byline: Fawn Johnson

Pro-immigration Republicans are blunt in stating that it is lawmakers in their own party, not Democrats, who need to be convinced on immigration. So they are structuring their lobbying forces around conservative values to move the GOP off its long-standing “border security first” position. To these conservatives, “pro-life” means pro-family, which means stopping deportations. “Free market” means that employers should be able to hire foreign workers legally.

“The only way this happens is if Republicans change their minds,” says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who hails from one of the most conservative states in the country and is a reform supporter. Ironically, the same sentiment was offered five years ago by Frank Sharry, a liberal reform advocate who ran the moderate National Immigration Forum when the most recent attempt to pass a comprehensive bill failed. Now he runs his own left-of-center immigration group called America’s Voice, which has criticized President Obama for not moving more aggressively on the issue.

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But even rabble-rousers such as Sharry level most of their criticism against Republicans, not Democrats. Now, a new coalition of “bibles, badges, and business” people–representing religious groups, law enforcement, and local businesses–is telling GOP politicians that they will keep losing elections unless they become more immigrant-friendly. That’s the raw political message, which is the key difference between now and five years ago. Supporters want to reassure conservatives that reform stands in line with their beliefs, but it’s a message born out of cold calculation.

“Do you want to win elections, or do you want to lose elections?” asks Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Land is antiabortion and anti-“Obamacare.” He endorsed Republican nominee Mitt Romney and worries that Obama’s reelection will solidify the health care law. But on immigration, Land is with Obama. He says that 80 percent of his ultraconservative, mostly white congregation supports comprehensive immigration changes similar to what Obama wants–a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, enhanced enforcement of immigration laws, and family reunification.

Some members of this conservative coalition, such as Shurtleff and Land, are well-known for their longtime support of a path to citizenship. Others, like New York dairy farmer Sheldon Brown, are newcomers to the effort. “I feel more comfortable with a room full of cows than I do with this distinguished group,” Brown said at a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington. Brown said he made the trek from his upstate dairy to the Capitol because he has personally witnessed the staffing problems faced by his industry–as well as by “vegetable, fruit, berries, nursery, crop” producers who can’t find legal workers.

The group talked with White House officials and members of Congress about next year’s debate on immigration. The message was sharply strategic. “Step into the promised land of the Hispanic electorate,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who later described his pro-immigration position as “pro-God, pro-faith, pro-family.”

Postelection, Republican leaders are keenly aware that the Hispanic vote could have given them wins in Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia–and thus perhaps the White House. Many believe that Hispanics rejected the party’s candidates because of its tough immigration stance. Democratic and Republican lobbyists who have been angling for a big-time fix to the byzantine immigration system sense that now there is a way to get there–but the road still travels through the heart of the GOP.

“Republicans, on average, are against immigration. Period. Not illegal immigration, legal immigration,” says Howie Morgan, national political director for the Minuteman Project. “There are voters out there that still don’t trust Congress, and if [lawmakers] told them immigration is good, they won’t trust them. They are the same guys that let all the illegal aliens in.”

The Minutemen are not aligning themselves with the conservatives-love-immigration movement, but they are watching the conversation closely. The group is best known for its camouflage-bedecked volunteers brandishing guns on the U.S.-Mexico border, but that unquestionably hawkish image contrasts with the Minutemen’s sanguine view of immigration. “We believe the immigration numbers are too low and have always been too low,” and that encourages illegal immigration, Morgan says. “If the people who came illegally were legal residents, guess what? You’d have to pay them minimum wage. They would have to follow the laws.”

In 2007, religious supporters joined with business associations and civil-rights organizations and some (but not all) law-enforcement groups to push for a complex, carefully negotiated immigration package. Republicans still defected in droves. But the party has lost two presidential elections since then, with the Hispanic vote a key driver. The goal now is to give Republicans room to maneuver, and the election results and new faces help toward that end, according to Land. “Enabling politicians to do the right thing–that’s what I know about,” said Jim Wallis, a theologian and the president of the social-justice organization Sojourners, who often travels with Land. “I tell them, ‘Your heart is in the right place, but you don’t show courage,’ ” Wallis said.

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To hear Republicans on Capitol Hill tell it, they need more than courage. They need the political cover provided by established conservative organizations such as the Minuteman Project and Americans for Tax Reform, led by Grover Norquist. It remains to be seen whether the new immigration coalition trumpeting conservative credentials will be enough to prompt action next year.

Opposition groups like NumbersUSA that advocate reduced immigration still have significant political clout, particularly in the GOP-led House. The story line about Republican reassessment on immigration is “a massive PR campaign” that doesn’t reflect the election results in the House, said NumbersUSA President Roy Beck. “A solid anti-amnesty majority has returned,” he said, promising that those lawmakers will hold the line on any proposed legalization plan. Conservative or liberal, the reformers have their work cut out for them.