How Republicans Can Win Over Their Party on Immigration

Fawn Johnson
National Journal

It’s a combination of charm and fear tactics. Republican defenders of an immigration overhaul are talking up their ability to write into law a tough enforcement strategy.

Yet there are still members of their party they will have to write off.

If President Obama signs an immigration-reform law this year, 11 million people living in the United States illegally will immediately be given a break. They will no longer be deportable unless they are felons. They will be able to work legally, get driver’s licenses, and travel outside of the country.

That’s a tough nut for conservatives to swallow, both on political grounds and in principle. What are laws for, ask rank-and-file Republicans, if lawbreakers are no longer lawbreakers on the stroke of a pen? Here are the GOP answers:

1. Show them the way. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., offers the easiest model to follow for a wary conservative. It helps that he has undergone his own conversion and not been disavowed by the tea party. “My initial position, when I first started out on this endeavor in January, was that we should do the enforcement first and then the legalization,” he said Tuesday. “The problem with that is what do you do in the meantime? Do you ignore the fact that you have millions of people that are living here?”

Rubio, a member of the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” on immigration, offers the freshest example of a Republican who champions immigration reform and is still friendly with conservative talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh. “I go on these shows all the time. I’m a regular participant in these forums,” Rubio said.

2. Tough life for felons. The law will still be enforced in every area except unauthorized residence in the United States. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., another “Gang” member, made sure to point out that deportations won’t stop for “aggravated felons” once a bill is signed into law.

He acknowledged that deportations of noncriminals would stop “if there’s prima facie evidence that you qualify” for legal status.

Another Gang of Eight member, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., tossed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano this softball in her question-and-answer session before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday: Isn’t it true that there would be “no waivers” on legalization “for an aggravated felony or a felony?” he asked, obviously knowing the answer. Yes, that’s right, she replied.

3. Next president? “There’s a growing acceptance [among Republicans] that the people who are here for the most part are not going to be rounded up and deported,” Rubio said.

That’s probably as close as the GOP can come toward broad agreement on immigration. There will always be Republicans who don’t forgive their elected officials for voting in favor of legalization.

When asked if members of his party can get on board with legalization, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., simply responded, “There are many that aren’t, obviously.”

But defenders hope that if Republicans stay focused on the White House, the legalization piece will be easier for them to accept. “The first major benchmarks and triggers in this bill will be met at the five-year point, which will be two years after Barack Obama and his administration are gone,” Rubio said. “So hopefully we’ll have someone in that position who will do a better job.”