Conservative immigration-reform supporters are trying to soften “tea party” opposition and give Republican lawmakers cover in advance of one possible final push on the issue this year in the House.
Amid growing speculation that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, may take up immigration bills this summer, more and more Republicans are making the case for reform in pro-business and economic-growth terms to conservative audiences.
On Wednesday, the Partnership for a New American Economy, Americans for Tax Reform and the Tea Party Express released a poll showing strong support for immigration reform among GOP primary voters who “identified strongly or somewhat” with the tea party. The same day, Sal Russo, Tea Party Express co-founder, argued in a guest column in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that conservatives need to step up to fix the nation’s immigration system in a way that protects the nation’s interests and doesn’t reflect the “misty-eyed ideals of some of the liberal do-gooder reformers.”
In Arizona, Daniel Garza, executive director of the libertarian-leaning LIBRE Initiative, on Thursday made a pitch for immigration reform to the Scottsdale Tea Party, to mixed results.
Garza told The Arizona Republic that he hopes the House will take up “market-based reform” legislation this summer. His group would be fine with either a pathway to citizenship for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, a concept included in last year’s Senate-passed immigration bill backed by Republican U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, or just a legalization of their status, which seems more likely in the Republican-controlled House.
The noisy no-”amnesty” opponents get most of the attention, but there is more support for immigration reform on the right than some might think, Garza said.
“The folks that have been very vocal — the ones with the microphones, the ones with the media platforms — do it for ratings and they do it to stoke their audiences,” said Garza, whose Hispanic-oriented, libertarian-leaning group has received funding from conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. “But mainstream America, and mainstream conservatism, is really about market principles, and market principles demand that we address the issue of market demand for labor, and that’s low-skilled and high-skilled labor.”
According to the poll of 400 “tea party” Republican primary voters, conducted May 9 though Monday by Alexandria, Va.-based McLaughlin & Associates, 70 percent would back a plan to provide citizenship or legal status to immigrants “who pay penalties, pay back taxes, pass a criminal background check, and learn English and American civics” and 71 percent consider it important for Congress to address the issue in 2014. The poll’s total sample had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
“I’m an optimist: I believe that the speaker and the leadership are committed to do this,” Al Cardenas, American Conservative Union chairman, said in a media conference call with Russo and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “… I’m confidant that before we hit the fall we will have something that we can all be proud of.”
Russo said the point of his Roll Call column was to convey the need for conservatives to lead on immigration reform. “Because we have a broken immigration system. It isn’t working. It’s flooding us with illegal immigrants, weakening our economy. It’s avoiding the assimilation that I think is an essential element of immigration.”
Amnesty critics remain a tough crowd. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, attacked the new survey in a Friday blog post on National Review‘s website as “the most dishonest amnesty poll yet” because its questions didn’t accurately describe any actual pending legislation. Seeing Red AZ, a local right-wing blog, dismissed Russo’s Roll Call column as “pure poppycock.”
But other observers say many on the right realize that the window is closing on the opportunity to enact immigration reform before the 2016 presidential race gets under way next year. President Barack Obama handily defeated both McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 among Hispanic voters.
“I think the good news is that the pro-reform Republicans are finally speaking up,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the liberal-leaning America’s Voice. “It’s not just John McCain and Jeff Flake. Finally, there are some Republicans who are saying, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to fumble the ball to Obama and we’re going to lose out politically.’”