Immigration restrictionist groups hope to launch grass-roots revolt against reform bill

As a bipartisan group of senators prepares to release a bill that could put as many as 11 million immigrants on a path to legalization and eventual citizenship, opponents of immigration reform—which many opponents refer to as "amnesty"—are trying to recreate the grass-roots backlash that helped kill the last major attempt at changing U.S. immigration law.

So far, the kind of outrage that doomed immigration reform in 2007 seems scarce. Since the November presidential elections, where President Barack Obama drew 71 percent of the Hispanic vote against Republican Mitt Romney, key GOP leaders have insisted the party must embrace reform in order to become more competitive among Hispanics.

It was a far different situation six years ago. On the June 2007 day the Senate was set to vote on the last immigration reform bill—President George W. Bush's top domestic goal—the Capitol phone system was so inundated with outraged calls that the Senate sergeant at arms announced that the switchboard had stopped working entirely.

Republicans who backed the bill, including the party's soon-to-be presidential nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain, faced particularly tough blowback from their constituents, who accused them of betrayal.

Meanwhile, dozens of "Minutemen" groups sprouted up around the country, encouraging thousands of volunteers, many armed, to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border to bring attention to illegal crossings and drug trafficking. (The Minutemen movement has since almost entirely died out.)

In the end, the bill died in the Senate with only a handful of Republican senators supporting it.

Two groups at the center of the opposition movement in 2007 are hoping to revive similar grass-roots opposition this time.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is hosting an event called "Hold Their Feet to the Fire" next Thursday in Washington. The group plans to bring in 50 conservative talk radio hosts in a "Radio Row" to blast their opposition to the reform bill over the airwaves.

"It's widely acknowledged that talk radio played a heavy role in the defeat of the McCain-Kennedy bill back [in 2007]," Bob Dane, FAIR's communications director, said. The talk radio hosts will ask their listeners to "flood the Capitol switchboard."

Boston's Howie Karr, whose show is syndicated in New England and New York, is one of the radio hosts expected to join, as is Lars Larson, a nationally syndicated talk radio host based in Oregon. Both are staunch opponents of illegal immigration and any efforts to legalize the status of those who overstayed visas or entered the country illegally.

Dane says about 30 lawmakers and an unspecified number of special guests—including sheriffs from around the country and ranchers from border states—are expected to attend.

Dane said the opinions of talk radio hosts is a "precise indicator of what the GOP rank and file think." But a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 73 percent of Republicans support a path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country if it includes a background check, fines and back taxes. (When the background checks and fines aren't mentioned, the support drops to 47 percent of Republicans.)

Such findings suggest that only a small portion of the Republican base objects to any form of legalization. And this time around, some heavyweight conservative commenters, including Fox News' Sean Hannity, have said they support reform.

Meanwhile, the group NumbersUSA, which, like FAIR, favors lower legal and illegal immigration rates, says 1.7 million of its members have faxed, called or emailed their members of Congress over the last 18 months to tell them not to support a bill that confers legal status on those who immigrated to the U.S. illegally. (NumbersUSA also has five times the membership it did in 2007, according to a spokesman.) The group says its members have faxed 34,065 pleas to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida alone since January. Rubio, a Republican popular with tea party activists and other conservatives, is one of the so-called Gang of Eight senators crafting the legislation, as is Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake.

Jennifer Korn, executive director of the center-right pro-reform Hispanic Leadership Network, says she doubts opponents of immigration reform will be able to drum up the kind of opposition they did five years ago.

"The environment is completely different," Korn, who worked in the White House when Bush attempted to pass immigration reform in his second term, said.

It's more than just a change in the political environment. Since 2007, the rate of illegal border crossing has dropped significantly, in part due to increased enforcement manpower on the Southwest border. The limping economy has also played a role, as fewer migrants are willing to take the risk of crossing without the promise of work.

Korn said Rubio's insistence that the bill include a provision that the border be declared "secure" before any unauthorized immigrants are put on a path to citizenship is vital in securing more support among Republican base voters.

"The fact that you have Rubio and Flake at the table ensuring that conservative solutions are included in the legislation is key," Korn said.

Rubio has also done a conservative media tour of sorts, trying to convince talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter—and their listeners—that his bill will be a fair way to deal with the country's immigration problem.

But Dane believes the conservative opposition will begin to rear its head when the draft of the bill is actually released and Americans see what it proposes to do. The debate so far has taken place inside the Beltway, he says.

"The entire GOP is getting duped," Dane said. "The Democrats are on the sidelines saying 'attaboy' to the Republicans. Obama is saying, 'Right on, you Republicans are sure going to help your party doing this.' The Republicans are energized by an echo chamber."