House’s Most Conservative Members Soften Tone on Immigration

Acknowledging that reform won’t happen in 2014 has given Republicans a chance to appeal to Hispanic voters.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Immigrants celebrate after taking the oath of allegiance to the United States at a naturalization ceremony on January 17, 2014 in New York City. One hundred and fifty-three people from 41 countries became American citizens at the event.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
March 12, 2014, 10:23 a.m.

As the smell of Chick-fil-A sand­wiches cool­ing in the corner waf­ted over them, some of the House’s most con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers took an un­usu­ally soft tone on im­mig­ra­tion re­form on Wed­nes­day.

While ac­know­ledging at their monthly “Con­ver­sa­tions With Con­ser­vat­ives” event that little in the form of ac­tu­al le­gis­la­tion is likely to be done on the is­sue this year, sev­er­al con­ser­vat­ives im­pli­citly voiced their sup­port for al­low­ing those who were brought in­to the coun­try il­leg­ally as chil­dren, and for those who are will­ing to work hard, to so­lid­i­fy their status in the coun­try.

Rep. Joe Bar­ton, R-Texas, kicked off the dis­cus­sion by us­ing the L-word. “I think there is a middle ground. It’s not a cit­izen­ship path, but it is a leg­al­iz­a­tion path,” Bar­ton said, adding that “the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of the His­pan­ics in Texas are either there be­cause they were born there or they’ve come there to work and they are work­ing and they’re pos­it­ive, pro­duct­ive cit­izens.”

Bar­ton went on to re­count a meet­ing he held in his dis­trict on Tues­day with a group of His­pan­ic-Amer­ic­ans, in­clud­ing a wo­man in her “mid-40s, maybe her early 50s,” he said, who was brought to the United States il­leg­ally by her par­ents when she was just four years old. “She’s worked hard, she’s paid her taxes, she’s a pro­duct­ive cit­izen. We’ve got to find a way as Re­pub­lic­ans to help that wo­man and her fam­ily keep her in this coun­try without be­ing per­petu­ally afraid that she’s go­ing to be de­por­ted,” Bar­ton said.

At the same time, con­ser­vat­ives ar­gued, noth­ing can be done for people like Bar­ton’s con­stitu­ent un­til the bor­der is se­cure. “I think you would be amazed at what we will agree to once the bor­der is se­cure,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said em­phat­ic­ally Wed­nes­day.

The change in tone among con­ser­vat­ives comes weeks after House Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship ad­mit­ted that des­pite put­ting out a series of im­mig­ra­tion-re­form prin­ciples, noth­ing will be done this year to act on them. At the same time, this is an elec­tion year and Re­pub­lic­ans openly ac­know­ledge the need to ap­peal to His­pan­ic voters. “There’s so much we can do to show the His­pan­ic com­munity that we value them if they value the Amer­ic­an value sys­tem.”¦ We just can­not turn our back on that con­stitu­ency or that is­sue. But at the same time, we can’t just open the bor­der and say come on in,” Bar­ton said.

An­oth­er fel­low Tex­an, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, ad­ded: “Un­less you get bor­der se­cur­ity right, I’m not sure any oth­er thing counts and how can you count on this ad­min­is­tra­tion to get bor­der se­cur­ity right?”

The ex­cuse that Obama, who has in­creas­ingly re­lied on ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion to skirt around Con­gress, can­not be trus­ted to en­force new and ex­ist­ing im­mig­ra­tion laws has opened up Re­pub­lic­ans to soften their tone on the is­sue. Their hope is that show­ing com­pas­sion coupled with the in­sist­ence that they would act, if not for an in­ef­fect­ive pres­id­ent, will help to at­tract His­pan­ic voters in 2014, of­fer­ing a change in rhet­or­ic, but little in the way of ac­tion.

Hensarling summed up the tac­tic on Wed­nes­day. “I’ve got lots of com­pas­sion for people who are com­ing in­to this coun­try and are just try­ing to feed their kids, I get that. I mean if I was in that po­s­i­tion, you couldn’t make the razor wire sharp enough or the wall high enough, I get that. But at the same time you can­not ex­cuse those whose first act is to break the law,” Hensarling said.

But what to ac­tu­ally do with those who entered the coun­try il­leg­ally is an is­sue that Re­pub­lic­ans are leav­ing for an­oth­er day. Part of the is­sue is that the party wants to fo­cus the midterm elec­tions on the fail­ures of the Af­ford­able Care Act, rather than open them­selves up for at­tack on a new and con­ten­tious is­sue.

But that strategy could back­fire, warned Rep. Raul Lab­rador, R-Idaho, who has been a lead­er in the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence on im­mig­ra­tion re­form. “I think we need to have a pos­it­ive agenda for Amer­ica. We need to talk about the four, five, six is­sues that we stand for. If we only talk about Obama­care, we’re go­ing to have the same res­ult that we had in 2012, which is a lot of ex­cite­ment and a lot of people on the night of the elec­tion think­ing that we’re go­ing to win the elec­tion and be­ing very dis­ap­poin­ted the next morn­ing,” he said.

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