News Column

Republicans Rethink Stance on Immigration Law

November 12, 2012

Julia Preston

Overwhelming support at the polls by Hispanic Americans for President Barack Obama forced Republican leaders to reassess their appeal to Latino voters.

After a presidential election in which Latino voters rewarded President Barack Obama while punishing Republicans for their positions on immigration, Republican leaders and prominent conservatives have moved quickly to shift to new ground, saying they could support some kind of legislation to fix illegal immigration.

One of every 10 voters who cast ballots Tuesday was a Latino, and they favored Mr. Obama, with 71 percent of their votes, compared with 27 percent for Mitt Romney, forcing Republican leaders to wonder whether they could ever regain the presidency without increasing their appeal to Hispanic Americans.

The prospects for an immigration overhaul next year improved with stunning speed after the vote, with John A. Boehner, the speaker of the House, who had long resisted any broad immigration bill, saying Thursday that "a comprehensive approach is long overdue."

On Sunday, other leading Republicans said their party must be far more welcoming of Latinos.

A Romney adviser, Carlos Gutierrez, said he placed blame for the Republican candidate's loss "squarely on the far right wing of the Republican Party," partly because of policies and language that he said had "scared" Latino voters.

"If we want to be the party of growth and prosperity, we have to be the party of immigration," Mr. Gutierrez, who was a commerce secretary under President George W. Bush, said on CNN's "State of the Union." "We should be leading comprehensive immigration reform, we should be leading the Dream Act" to help law-abiding Latinos regularize their situation.

Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the highest- ranking Republican woman in Congress, said on the same program that her party needed to do better at communicating its values to "every demographic group."

Referring to Latinos, she said: "They need to know that we care. They need to know that we are pro-immigration."

Mr. Obama wasted no time, renewing in his acceptance speech early Wednesday his promise to move "in the coming weeks and months" on "fixing our immigration system."

A host of advocates noted that the coalition of forces supporting a thorough repair of the immigration system, including the offer of legal status for more than 11 million illegal immigrants, was broader and more organized than ever before.

It includes Latino organizations, business and agricultural employers, libertarian conservatives, evangelical Christians, and law enforcement groups.

"Is the Republican disconnect with the Latino community temporary or permanent?" asked the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the largest organization of Hispanic evangelicals. "The Republicans can redeem the narrative with this community by passing comprehensive immigration reform," Mr. Rodriguez said Thursday.

Republicans, in soul-searching mode after their loss, weighed the lessons from Mr. Romney's failed campaign. Looking at polls that showed immigration was not the top subject of concern for Latinos, Mr. Romney avoided the issue when he could and instead based his appeal to them on the economic themes he used with other voters. That was a serious misunderstanding of Latino sensibilities, leaders said.

"How you talked about immigrants sent a signal on what kind of perspective you had on Latinos over all," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, a bipartisan group.

Mr. Romney never recovered after he moved to the right during the primaries, saying he would pressure immigrants to "self-deport" and veto the Dream Act, a bill to give legal status to young immigrants here illegally that enjoys near-universal support among Latinos.

Mr. Obama lifted his sinking standing with Hispanics in June when he offered two-year reprieves from deportation and work permits to hundreds of thousands of those young immigrants, an action so popular it made Latinos overlook his having deported more than 1.4 million people during his term.

But many Republicans attacked the reprieves as amnesty by fiat, and Mr. Romney said he would cancel them if he became president.

In exit polls Tuesday, 77 percent of Hispanic voters said immigrants in the United States illegally should have a chance to apply for legal status, while 18 percent said they should be deported.

In the polls, 65 percent of all voters favored legal status for those immigrants, while 28 percent said they should be deported.

Mr. Boehner chose his words carefully on Thursday, in an interview with ABC News. Saying he was ready for a "comprehensive approach," he said he was confident that Congress and Mr. Obama could find "common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."

Speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday, Mr. Boehner declined to say whether he was endorsing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

"What I'm talking about is a common-sense step-by-step approach that would secure our borders, allow us to enforce our laws and fix a broken immigration system," he said. "But again," he added, "on an issue this big, the president has to lead."

Mr. Boehner's use of the word comprehensive caused a stir, because supporters of legal status for immigrants who lack it have long called their proposal "comprehensive immigration reform."

In recent years, traditional immigrant and Latino groups worked to organize and expand their base of support, finding middle ground with Republicans in state offices worried about the party slipping with minorities.

The attorney general of Utah, Mark Shurtleff, a conservative Republican, said he was part of an "education campaign" to persuade Republican officials that "they need to reject the run-'em-out, deport-'em, enforcement-only approach that people think is the only voice of the Republican Party."

The emerging coalition includes technology companies seeking more visas for high-skilled immigrants, growers seeking legal farm workers, evangelical pastors responding to huge growth in their churches from Latino immigrants and young undocumented immigrants whose protests pushed the White House to offer the deportation reprieves.

Last month Grover Norquist, the fiscal hawk who is president of Americans for Tax Reform, said in a speech in Indianapolis that more immigration, including legal status for those here illegally, was vital to economic revival.

But it was evident almost immediately after Mr. Boehner spoke on Thursday that many congressional Republicans would be hostile to comprehensive immigration-reform efforts.

"I'm urging the speaker to talk with House Republicans before making pledges on the national news," said Representative John Fleming, Republican of Louisiana.

"The first thing we need is for President Obama to finally enforce current immigration law and strengthen our borders. To take up any other agenda is bad policy for the American people and bad politics for Republicans."



Source: (C) 2012 International Herald Tribune. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved


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