DENVER - Republicans in the U.S. Congress are inching toward a deal on immigration, but will they lose part of their base as a result? Since last year's election, many top conservatives have distanced themselves from the idea that the country's 11 million illegal immigrants must be removed, instead signalling a new openness to allowing them to eventually become citizens.
Demographics and election returns are pushing Republican leaders away from many of the party's conservative voters, many of them white and from more rural regions.
In 2007, a grassroots rebellion led Republicans to reject then-President George W. Bush's immigration overhaul because it included a process in which otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants could eventually become citizens. Activists derided the provision as an "amnesty." After conservative tea party groups toppled various Republicans in primaries over issues that included their immigration stands, the party's rhetoric and proposals became increasingly tough.
That's changed since the drubbing the Republican Party took last November as President Barack Obama won a second term. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney received underwhelming support from voters in the two fastest-growing minority groups: 27 per cent of Hispanic voters and an even smaller share from Asians, according to exit polls. In contrast, George W. Bush won an estimated 44 per cent of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 re-election.
Prominent Republicans, from television commentator Sean Hannity to former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, now support legalizing the status of some illegal immigrants. The outline of a bill to do just that was unveiled Monday by a group of eight senators, four from each party, and Obama reiterated his support for a similar overhaul Tuesday.
Even in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, a half-dozen bipartisan members are nearing completion on wide-ranging legislation that would include a pathway to legalize the immigration status of those here without authorization.
It's unclear what, if any, immigration bill could pass Congress. Still, the shift in tone signals to some who favour tighter restrictions on immigration that parts of the Republican Party are ready to be flexible. That would be a dangerous move, they warn, arguing that Hispanics strongly support Obama's health care overhaul and other Democratic initiatives and are unlikely to ever back Republicans in significant numbers. They also warn that the party will squander a valuable resource by alienating its base.
"I don't know how you can even quantify the loss of enthusiasm," said former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a longtime thorn in party elders' sides for his aggressive stance on illegal immigration. "You're not going to knock on any doors, make any phone calls or give any money."
Other Republicans dismiss that worry. "Where else are they going to go?" asked Sig Rogich, a veteran Las Vegas-based Republican operative who has long pushed for a more immigrant-friendly Republican Party. "They'll get over it."
Immigration restriction activists — they don't like being called "anti-immigrant" or "hard-liners" — lack the organizational heft of labour unions, business organizations and religious groups, their primary opponents in this debate. Nonetheless, for years they were able to block an immigration overhaul that included some kind of legalized status.
But polls show public opinion may have turned against them. An AP-GfK poll last week found 62 per cent of Americans — and 53 per cent of Republicans — support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That's up 10 points and 22 points respectively from 2010.
"The economy's terrible, people are struggling and hurting. It's hard to go out and do what we were doing, at the same level, before," said Michelle Dallacroce, an Arizona-based activist who had to take down the website for her group, Mothers Against Illegal Amnesty, because donations dried up. "We're losing. We don't have a voice anymore."
Others are less worried. Rosemary Jenks, director of governmental relations for the Numbers USA, a group that favours tightening immigration restrictions, said the same popular rebellion that deadlocked Congress over Bush's immigration proposal also will stop Obama's, regardless of demographic trends and November's election results. She noted that some Democrats, too, oppose a big bill.
"It's going to be the same Republicans on the amnesty side and the same Democrats on our side," she said.
Still, the tea party chat rooms and message boards Virginia Gomez reads are full of foreboding that some Republicans are changing their stance on the issue. "They have moved away from securing the border and standing firm," said Gomez, 67. "They are trying to cater more to the people who are here illegally, but they are alienating people like myself, Hispanics who are born here in this country."
Michael Long, a retired Air Force employee in Colorado Springs who actively monitors the immigration debate, is resigned to the Republican Party cutting a deal. His antipathy for the idea is balanced by his respect for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the point man on the bipartisan agreement and potential presidential candidate in 2016, and his understanding of political realities.
"The last election scared the heck out of Republicans, and the numbers aren't going to go down for the Latino vote," said Long, 50.
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