The Anti-Immigration Coalition Is Shrinking

Elspeth Reeve

At a hearing on immigration Tuesday, Republican Rep. Robert Goodlatte tried to define a proposal to eventually grant illegal immigrants citizenship as extreme. If that's true, then some of his most conservative fellow Republicans are liberal extremists. "Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?" Goodlatte said, The New York Times reports. It's strange to equate these two things. Team Mass Deportation is shrinking, and Team Legalization is growing. Mass deportation is a nearly impossible fantasy, and legalization is something that's been proposed by both Republican and Democratic presidents and senators and is gaining support among important conservative groups.

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Despite some outrageous anti-immigration statements during the Republican presidential primary -- Herman Cain's alligator-filled moat and electric fence, Mitt Romney's support of harsh policies that would inspire immigrants to "self-deport" -- the issue is much less hot than it used to be. According to the Pew Research Center, Republican voters care far less about immigration than they did in 2007, when George W. Bush's proposed immigration overhaul failed in Congress. Back then, 69 percent of Republicans said dealing with immigration should be a top priority for Washington; today on 44 percent think so. And in saying it was a top priority, those voters weren't demanding amnesty. In June 2007, Pew found a plurality of Republicans, 43 percent, opposed the immigration reform bill, even though 62 percent of Republicans favored a path to citizenship. The number of Americans saying immigrants are a threat to traditional American values has declined since 2007, and now they're a minority.

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And what about conservative leaders? Conservative Christians are joining business leaders in calling for immigration reform. In 2006 and 2007, leaders of the Christian right opposed reform or were silent, Politico's Anna Palmer reports. But in 2013, it's different. "I think it is night and day, particularly among social conservatives," Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Ralph Reed told Politico. Liberty University vice president Mathew Staver supports reform. Focus on the Family backed reform in its radio broadcast. The Southern Baptist Convention's Richard Land points out that many of the most anti-immigration House members were defeated in the Democratic wave of the 2006 midterm elections, and says, "I think there’s a bigger coalition in the House for immigration reform than people think."

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Take, for example, Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, who is no moderate. Labrador was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010. He once said he "didn’t come to Washington to be part of a team." He demonstrated this by not voting for John Boehner to keep his job as House Speaker in January. But Labrador tells The Washington Post's Rosalind S. Helderman that even he sees an opportunity for moderation on immigration. Labrador has been in talks with Democratic Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez on immigration. He's requested to meet with President Obama. Of immigration reform, Labrador told the Post"It’s one of the stumbling blocks that I see for some Republicans. They’re moderate on every other issue, and they think this is the one issue where they have to become conservatives. I feel the reverse."