WASHINGTON - For years, pro-immigration conservative activists have tried with little success to gain an audience with top Republicans in Washington.
But since last month’s election, with the GOP’s dismal performance among Hispanics, that has started to change. On Tuesday, more than 250 activists plan to come to Washington for a debut of sorts, hosting a news conference and strategy session before heading to Capitol Hill for meetings with key lawmakers.
Group leaders say they hope to bring a fresh, outsiders’ perspective to the debate, with testimonials from rural sheriffs, local preachers, even the director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. Rather than dwelling on the politics of the issue, these conservative leaders plan to cast the issue based on how they see it in their communities - in moral and economic terms.
“There’s a radical, loud element out there that just doesn’t seem to get it, that will never get it,” said Mark Curran, the Republican sheriff of Lake County, Ill., and a participant in this week’s activities. “They shouldn’t be given any real deference anymore.”
Curran, a devout Catholic, once held hard-line, anti-illegal immigration views, but changed his mind in 2010 during conversations with clergy and business leaders. He thinks some conservative House members could undergo a similar conversion.
“The political realities and the realities of my faith started to collide, and I couldn’t reconcile it anymore,” he said.
The effort comes at a time of soul-searching among senior Republicans, who have concluded that President Barack Obama’s dominance among Hispanic voters and other groups, such as Asian-Americans, resulted at least in part from years of hard-line opposition by conservative Republicans to more liberalized immigration laws. Many believe that 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney alienated Hispanic voters when he tilted to the right during his primary campaign, supporting a policy of “self-deportation” for immigrants while attacking rivals for being too soft on the issue.
It also underscores a shift in tactics by immigrant advocates, who for years have made it their central goal to win a pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. Now, joining forces with conservative leaders, some advocates on the left say they are willing to consider a scaled-back approach, perhaps a legalization plan that stops short of citizenship, if it would bring House Republicans to the table.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, one of the most vocal backers of a path to citizenship, remains steadfastly in that camp. Still, he said that “we’ve got to stop setting preconditions before we have conversations, and that’s something that’s changed.”
The conservative activists coming to Washington this week for their “national strategy session” plan to host lawmakers from both parties at a breakfast Wednesday before fanning out to meet with House and Senate members. The primary messages will focus on values, including the importance of keeping immigrant families together, and economics, such as the crucial role played by immigrant labor for agriculture and technology businesses.
Key event speakers include AOL co-founder Steve Case and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, along with leaders of various state-based industry groups and the National Association of Evangelicals.
“For years, conservative faith, law enforcement and business leaders have supported the need for a national immigration strategy,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, the pro-immigrant advocacy group that has been coordinating the effort he calls “bibles, badges and business.” “Now, their voices are coalescing around a new consensus. And, more importantly, the pressure they bring to bear on Republicans is unique.”
Several participants said they had already been holding in-person meetings with House Republicans and sensing new openings. A primary concern for many conservative lawmakers is avoiding any suggestion that they want amnesty for illegal immigrants. Some have said they would support a legalization plan that includes a fine or other penalties. Others have said they want to help young people brought to the country as children.
The Rev. Luis Cortes, who heads Ezperanza, a large Hispanic evangelical network, and who has met with about a dozen House Republicans, said many are seeking a “workaround” of the amnesty question. At the same time, Cortes said, any compromise could create difficult choices for Democrats and the White House.
“We’re going to have to figure out who can get citizenship,” Cortes said. “The left and the pro-immigrant groups are going to have to figure out, where are they going to trade?”
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, is another key player in the new coalition. He said finding compromise “is going to take a disciplined coalition of the middle, the moderate conservatives in the Republican Party and the moderate liberals in the Democratic Party who actually want to get something done.”
Lawmakers have begun maneuvering in recent days to lay a foundation for bipartisan talks. Possible GOP point people in the House include Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Raul Labrador of Idaho. In the Senate, a new Republican entrant to the conversation is Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a tea party favorite with credibility among House conservatives.
“Republicans understand that if we don’t get serious about doing this, we’ll be relegated to a permanent minority,” said Labrador, a Puerto Rico native and former immigration lawyer.
The conservative activists coming to town this week are hoping that a dose of pragmatism can have an effect on what has been an intractable issue.
“Those who feel strengthened by the election outcome have to be able to restrain themselves from trying to push for too much,” said Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho dairy group. “And those who feel weakened because of the election outcome actually need to realize they have to come to the table and be willing to negotiate in good faith a bill that has the potential of passing.”