Once More to the Breach

Culture Warriors Gearing Up for New Battle Against Immigration Reform

Conservatives will try to kill Obama’s immigration initiative—though they face tougher odds than in 2007. By David Freedlander.

Seen this movie before?

A reelected president, looking to cement his legacy, tries to reform the country’s broken immigration system, cheered on by a bipartisan group of senators.

The last time this particular reel unspooled was in 2007, when George W. Bush assured reporters, “I’ll see you at the bill-signing” after conservative Republicans like Jon Kyl of Arizona and Trent Lott of Mississippi teamed up with Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein to push a bill that would, among other measures, provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, create a guest-worker program, and tighten border security.

A few days later the bill was dead after an unprecedented onslaught among conservative activists, who lit up blogs, talk radio, and the phone lines of GOP members of Congress to express their opposition to the bill.

This time around, some of those same cultural warriors say they are gearing up for another fight.

“The Chamber of Commerce, religious groups, labor unions—all of these special interests have been meeting with the Gang of Eight, and negotiating with them, but there is one important group of people that have been totally left out of this process and that is the American people,” said Rosemary Jenks, the director of government affairs for Numbers USA, which spearheaded the effort to kill the 2007 bill. “We are going to make sure that the American people get their say on this.”

Numbers USA mostly relies on an email network to get their message out and to encourage supporters to flood members of Congress with their opposition to anything that reeks of “amnesty.” In 2007, they say, they were able to derail the reforms by reaching out to their 350,000 members. This time around, they say they have the emails of 1.4 million supporters.

“We think we will be even a little more noticeable this time,” Jenks said.

The primary task for conservatives opposed to the reforms is to convince GOP lawmakers that party strategists and the conventional wisdom that says Republicans need to embrace the measure in order to compete over the growing Hispanic electorate, is, in fact, wrong. The new law, they say, would instead depress enthusiasm among the base, and hand Democrats millions of new voters.

“FAIR’s role in this is to speak truth to power, and to explain to people what effect these proposals would have if they became law,” said Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, “other than the ludicrous idea that Republicans can get all of these Hispanic voters. All this will do is ensure their political annihilation. Republicans don’t have a Hispanic voter problem—they have trouble convincing people that aren’t hospitable to low taxes and high entrepreneurship what is in it for them to be Republican.”

Stein said this bill passing the House would all but guarantee a Democratic takeover of the House in 2014, fueled in part by disaffected Republicans turning away from the party.

“Remember, [John] Boehner is already on probation after the debt-ceiling fight. Our job is to make sure that all members of Congress hear the views of the electorate on this.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

They already appear to have some allies.

“Once the American people learn the details of what is in the bill, the switchboards will light up, just as they did in 2007,” said Lou Barletta, a Pennsylvania Republican congressman and the leader of the conservative House immigration caucus. “This will be the end of the Republican Party if it passes.”

Opponents of the measure also say that in many ways conditions are less favorable for passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill than they were in 2007. Unemployment is higher than it was then, wages are stagnant, and workers are working longer and often below their skill level. And in a time of tight budgets, opponents plan to paint the bill as diverting more federal resources to a low-income population via increased applications to food stamps, unemployment benefits, and other social programs.

“This is another amnesty bill that Americans cannot afford,” said Barletta. “We have 22 million Americans out of work, and providing a pathway to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants that would cost approximately $2.6 trillion net over the next 10 years is a very bad idea. They are rushing to take this issue off the table, and for anyone who understands this problem, they know that you don’t replace the carpet if you have a hole in the roof. This would just encourage millions more to come into the country illegally and eventually receive citizenship.”

But some of those who were part of the movement to derail the 2007 bill now say that the time has come for reform, and plan to join GOP lawmakers this time around, including members of the evangelical community, which was largely on the sidelines the last time around, and conservative Hispanics, who were likewise mostly silent during the last debate.

“[Congressional Republicans] are going to be less inclined to listen to anti-immigrant lobby,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, who opposed the 2007 effort but supports this one. “We have been working with other groups to unmask the main anti-immigrant groups. They have appealed to the conservative movement, but they are not conservative—they are tied to Zero Population Group, and Planned Parenthood, and have an anti-life, eugenics philosophy. Once conservatives become aware of who those people are, they are going to be less likely to listen to them.”

The conservative infrastructure has shifted greatly since 2007. Back then, advocates wanted to replicate the kind of person-to-person network that made Howard Dean a superstar on the Democratic side. In a post-Citizens United World, however, the real power lies with big-monied groups that can overwhelm person-to-person networks. And big-pocketed groups like Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity, which hardly existed then, are now expected to be able to counter whatever opponents try to mount. In 2007 a number of groups that attended the weekly Weyrich Lunch, a confab of top conservative organizations, opposed the effort, but this time they are expected to be on board.

“There may be a backlash, but it will be easier to ignore,” said Colin Hanna, the president of Let Freedom Ring, a conservative 501(c)(4), which also opposed the 2007 effort but supports this one. “I think particularly for evangelical Christians and serious Catholics, it is important that any final solution achieve the goals of being both unambiguously supportive of the rule of law and unambiguously supportive of the compassionate treatment of those who are here illegally.”

Opponents concede that they have their work cut out for them this time around, but say they are ready for the fight.

“They have lined up their ducks more effectively. The last time they just assumed they were going to win, and this time they are clearly more prepared,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes more relaxed immigration. “They have an evangelical effort that basically says that you will be damned to hell if you oppose amnesty. Nonetheless, I think those attempts to get conservatives to agree with them will end up hurting those making the argument, those like Republican senators, and evangelical leaders, more than it will succeed in persuading people.”

Opponents say time is on their side. The longer it takes for Congress to get a bill on the floor and voted on, the more time they will have to marshal their forces and pull out odious aspects of a bill to a full airing. The conservative media sphere already took a couple of bites out of the announcement on Monday, with Rush Limbaugh declaring, “I don’t think there’s any Republican opposition to this of any majority consequence or size. We’ll have to wait and see and find out. But this is one of those, just keep plugging away, plugging away, plugging away until you finally beat down the opposition.” And the conservative blog Red State warned that the bill could create “a permanent Democratic majority.”

“To a certain degree, there has been a lot of backpedaling on all of our parts,” said Ron De Jong, a spokesman for the right-wing Internet community Grassfire, which was instrumental in defeating the last bill. “Obama’s second term has been him throwing a lot down the pike at us. I don’t have a whole lot of confidence that we are going to get what we want out of this. It is my hope that we are going to be able to rally around this like we did the last time, but I don’t know that we will be able to. Democrats have done of very good job of figuring out what they want, and Obama has momentum, he has the ear of the country, and he seems very relaxed and confident.”