A new battle has flared inside the Republican Party in recent days as supporters of more-liberal immigration laws wage a behind-the-scenes campaign to discredit the influential advocacy groups that have long powered the GOP’s hard-line stance on the issue.
The campaign, largely waged in closed-door meetings with lawmakers and privately circulated documents, is another sign of how seriously many establishment Republicans are pursuing an immigration overhaul in the wake of last year’s elections, in which the GOP lost Hispanic voters by an overwhelming margin to President Obama.
Much of the party’s sharp language on immigration during the election campaign, which Republican strategists blamed for alienating Hispanics, was drawn from the research and rhetoric of the groups advocating tougher measures to discourage illegal immigration.
Now, Republicans pushing the party to rethink its approach to the issue are accusing those groups — Numbers USA, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) — of masquerading as conservative. Critics say the groups and some of their supporters are pressing an unorthodox agenda of strict population control that also has included backing for abortion, sterilization and other policies at odds with conservative ideology.
“If these groups can be unmasked, then the bulk of the opposition to immigration reform on the conservative side will wither away,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a leading organizer of the effort.
Officials from the groups say they are the victims of a smear campaign that unfairly characterizes their mission. They acknowledge that some key figures in their past held a wide range of views on population growth and abortion, as do some current members, but the groups accuse their critics of pushing guilt-by-association arguments to distract from the merits of the case for restricting immigration.
Close ties to candidates
The groups have provided the intellectual framework and grass-roots muscle for opposing legislation that would legalize millions of illegal immigrants.
Well-funded and politically savvy, the groups produce research papers, testify at congressional hearings and appear frequently in the media to push for reducing immigration. Numbers USA reports that its members have inundated the office of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) with 100,000 faxes this year warning him that his central role in pursuing changes in immigration laws could damage his future political prospects.
The groups have established close relationships with some of Congress’s most vocal critics of more liberal immigration laws.
The Center for Immigration Studies’ Web site, for instance, features testimonials in which Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), lauds the center’s “credible and articulate voice” and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) thanks it for providing “invaluable research.”
When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last year endorsed a policy of “self-deportation” in which he said cracking down on illegal immigrants would force many of them to leave on their own, his position matched a policy laid out years earlier by the CIS called “attrition through enforcement.”
The groups are front and center again this year, with a CIS official appearing before a key Senate committee Wednesday and the other groups mobilizing members to lobby against a possible bipartisan deal on citizenship.
Conservatives who are taking on the groups, including Rubio, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and officials of the Catholic Church, argue that the three organizations are motivated by far different philosophies than many of their Republican allies realize. Among those views: that population growth from increased migration threatens the environment.
The Republicans orchestrating the campaign against the groups have long rejected their views on immigration, and liberal immigration advocates have long made a practice of attacking the organizations. Now, with such GOP leaders as House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) saying immigration legislation is a priority, some Republicans see an opportunity to loosen what they say has been the groups’ stranglehold on party orthodoxy.
Rubio’s aides last week brought one of the organizers of the effort to undermine the groups, Mario H. Lopez, a party strategist on Hispanic politics, to a regular meeting of GOP Senate staffers, at which Lopez distributed literature about the groups’ backgrounds and connections. Rubio also raised concerns about the groups’ leanings during a recent conference call on immigration with conservative activists.
Rubio’s spokesman, Alex Conant, said the senator “has argued that some groups that oppose legal immigration should not be considered part of the conservative coalition,” adding that the “vast majority of Republicans strongly support legal immigration.”