CIR Gaining Ground Among Rank-and-File Conservatives

It’s been almost a year since the Senate approved S.744, the comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) measure that still awaits passage of a companion bill in the House of Representatives. Legislation has been stalled for months in the lower chamber, largely due to an ongoing disagreement within the House Republican caucus about how, when, and whether to proceed with CIR.

GOP pragmatists have long supported modernizing our immigration system, because they know that American businesses need access to the global labor market in order to remain competitive. The pragmatists weren’t the problem; rather, it was fear of the ideologues that seemed to keep Speaker Boehner from bringing immigration legislation to a floor vote. To avoid an open split between the two camps, and protect more moderate members of his caucus from primary election challenges from the right, the Speaker opted for legislative stasis.

But here’s where it gets interesting: a national poll shows that 69 percent of self-identified Tea Party voters, and 71 percent of conservative Republican voters, favor Congressional action on immigration reform this year! [See New Poll: Tea Party Voters Want Immigration Reform This Year, Partnership for a New American Economy, Americans for Tax Reform, and Tea Party Express, 12.May.2014.]

The results of the survey were published by the Partnership for a New American Economy (PNAE), Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), and the Tea Party Express, a collaboration that’s notable in its own right: it brings together PNAE – a centrist organization of political and business heavyweights that favor immigration reform – with two key conservative advocacy groups. It finds billionaire entrepreneur and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tumbling in the down with Grover Norquist (ATR) and Sal Russo (Tea Party Express).

Yes, politics makes strange bedfellows – but this does not mean conservatives will support the same kind of immigration reforms that Senate Democrats and their Republican allies passed last June. The survey of conservative voters found that 76 percent of conservative GOP voters would support CIR that conforms to the standards enunciated by Speaker Boehner: enhanced border security, and a path to legal status – of some kind – for undocumented immigrants who can pass a background check, learn English, pay back taxes and a financial penalty, and so on.

In an op-ed piece that appeared in Roll Call – one of Capitol Hill’s newspapers of record – Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo made the economic case for immigration reform. With some notable exceptions, his talking points sounded surprisingly similar to those of CIR advocates across the spectrum: the current system is outdated and must be fixed; immigration reform is an economic necessity; and border security should focus on keeping out people who would do us harm: “law breakers, drug dealers, criminals and terrorists.” [See Conservatives Need to Fix the Broken U.S. Immigration System, by Sal Russo, Roll Call, 14.May.2014.]

If that weren’t enough, a rightward-leaning Washington Post columnist, Jennifer Rubin, notes that three of the GOP’s possible presidential contenders – Senator Rand Paul, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – all have recently voiced “support for legal status for undocumented immigrants,” a contentious issue that has threatened to derail many earlier attempts to forge consensus on CIR. [See Morning Bits, by Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post, 19.May.2014.]

In an earlier column, Rubin pointed out that during the recent primary elections, many Republicans found that immigration reform no longer provokes knee-jerk revulsion among the party activists who usually turn out for these contests. [See Nope, Immigration Reform and Common Core Aren’t Toxic, by Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post, 08.May.2014.] In fact, this appears to be the take-home message: that the conservative electorate truly is coming around on immigration reform. Perhaps their leaders will follow.

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