Immigration reform groups react after Rubio speaker portrays them as unholy misanthropes

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

Immigration reform groups are responding cautiously to the Feb. 14 revelation that Sen. Marco Rubio’s aides apparently tried to portray them as left-wing, anti-Christian misanthropes.

Their low-key response has helped tamp down the potential conflict with Rubio, who is working with seven other senators on a controversial rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws.

The senator’s spokesman, Alex Conant, also downplayed the revelations sketched in the Washington Post’s article.

“We are not focused on these groups whatsoever,” said Conant. “Our focus is on passing an immigration reform plan that secures the border and modernizes our legal immigration system,” he told The Daily Caller.

The Washington Post article said Rubio’s aides invited an advocate for large-scale immigration to an early February meeting of Senate staffers.

The advocate — Mario Lopez, the president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund — distributed an article slamming the reform groups who are seeking to shrink the number of immigrants coming into the country, which now stands at roughly 1 million per year.

The reform groups — principally NumbersUSA, the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform — are engaged in a high-stakes fight against pro-immigration groups over the terms of an immigration bill being drafted by Rubio and seven other senators that favor large-scale immigration.

The pro-immigration groups include progressives, ethnic lobbies and business interests. They’re pushing for a major rewrite of immigration law that would provide a conditional amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants, and also invite millions of their family members, plus many skilled and unskilled workers, into the United States, despite the high unemployment, stalled wages and huge annual deficits. (RELATED — Immigration advocate slams Grover Norquist: He doesn’t give a “damn” about workers)

Rubio is an influential player in the ongoing negotiations over the immigration deal, because he can rally Republican senators to kill a bad deal at modest political cost, and use public skepticism over amnesty to win a better deal from Democrats.

However, Rubio has less ability to rally GOP supporters in favor of a bad deal, partly because the reform groups can rally the Republican base — and many swing voters — against amnesty and large-scale immigration of new workers.

At the February meeting, Lopez portrayed the reform groups as a creation of John Tanton, a major environmentalist donor who wants a smaller global population.

The groups are funded by radical environmentalists, and they’re not conservative, Lopez told TheDC. Their political advice to the GOP is terrible, and “from what I’ve seen their data is bad … but I’m not a data guy.”

“When conservatives sit around a table to decide what to do about immigration, maybe they should not be there,” he said.

The same message is being pushed by Lopez’s political allies, including Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

“In our visits to senators and members of Congress, we’ve been sharing [Lopez’s] article and educating members about the groups,” he told TheDC. The groups also “fabricate data to advance their agenda,” said Aguilar, who is director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

Aguilar’s group is part of the American Principles Project, a Washington-based conservative advocacy group run by Frank Cannon, who is also promoting Lopez’s pitch.

“FAIR, NumbersUSA and CIS were started, and are staffed and funded, by a cabal of radical environmentalists, zero population ideologues and Planned Parenthood promoters … [who are] wedded to the long-discredited Malthusian view that ‘people are pollution,” Cannon wrote in an op-ed for Politico, a Virginia-based website and newspaper.

Cannon was a founder of a Capital City Partners, an advocacy firm which closed its doors in November. The firm’s clients included La Raza, the Hispanic lobby, which hired the partners to push for an “comprehensive immigration reform” bill in 2006 and 2007.

That bill included several immigration-promotion provisions similar to those in the bill now being pushed by Rubio and the bipartisan “gang of eight” reformers.

The gang includes Sens. Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, as well as four Democratic senators.

The three reform groups reply that they’re single-issue groups, devoid of partisan affiliations or any hostility to people. They’re just focused on immigration reforms that help Americans, and they’re also trying to keep good relations with Rubio, said the groups’ members.

“We do not take, and have never taken, positions on any issues other than immigration,” said a Feb. 14 email to Rubio’s office from Rosemary Jenks, the government relations chief of NumbersUSA. “I just wanted to let you know that I am sorely disappointed to know that your office is actively engaged in a baseless smear campaign against NumbersUSA.”

Lopez portrays NumbersUSA as a left-wing group, even though he relies on the “same regurgitated nonsense that the Southern Poverty Law Center uses to try to convince liberals that we are a right wing organization,” she added.

“We’re neither liberal or conservative,” said Bob Dane, spokesman for FAIR. “For 30 years, our jobs has been to represent ordinary Americans who never have a place at the table when immigration is discussed.”

The Lopez pitch also angered some Republicans on the Hill.

“This issue is of too great a consequence to engage in personal destruction at the expense of acknowledging all the facts — that’s what the left does, and conservatives rightly reject that,” said a Republican aide. “All conservatives must be steadfastly wary of any costs of a comprehensive plan, and be open and honest about what those are.”

Jenks also combined a rebuke of Rubio and his staff with a compliment for the senator.

During a 2012 meeting with “Senator Rubio last year, we were impressed with his knowledge and understanding of the immigration issue, and the need to responsibly reform the system. … I have actually defended Senator Rubio and said that I believe he has the best of intentions,” she wrote.

“I feel sort of foolish now for doing that, knowing that he and his staff have been attacking my motives and those of my organization behind closed doors and on conference calls. It is a sad day for our democracy when our leaders prefer to avoid an open debate about serious policy issues by resorting to character assassination.”

The sharp attack on the reform groups — despite the potential they have to help Rubio win a better deal in partisan negotiations — suggests that the GOP’s business establishment is desperate to rush through a bill before the public notices, said one immigration activist. The primary goal for GOP activists, he suggested, is to mollify Hispanic voters before the 2016 presidential race, regardless of the long-term impact.

Rubio’s aides downplayed the clash.

Lopez did not speak at the staffers’ meeting, Conant said, adding that Lopez’s dispute with the three groups “is not our fight.”

“We’re focused on writing actual legislation,” he said.

Jenks’ cautious response reflects the reformers’ reluctance to break with Rubio.

They’d rather work with him to reform immigration law so it helps ordinary Americans, even if they’re forced to compromise and accept some major demands sought by amnesty advocates, such as La Raza or the American Immigration Law Association.

They also want him to keep a political distance from proponents of large-scale immigration, especially Sens. Chuck Schumer, McCain and Graham, and to help him walk away from a deal that doesn’t help Americans, reformers told TheDC.

Their strategy is to bind Rubio to his numerous public promises and commitments to toughen enforcement against border crossers, people who overstay their visas and companies that hire illegal workers.

“It is clear that his own party [supporters] believes strongly in enforcement, [and] if he just agree to fig leaves of enforcement, it will cost him politically in the long term,” said one reform advocate.

Mainstream opposition to the amnesty of guest-worker plans stopped previous immigration rewrites in 2006 and 2007, deeply damaged McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and could derail any presidential run by Rubio, said the advocate.

“Working-class, lunch-pail folks want the law enforced, and Republicans have had a lot of trouble get those voters out” in 2008 and 2012, he added. (RELATED: Anti-immigration group says polls showing support for immigration reform are all wrong)

Even if Rubio was able to use a pro-immigration deal to boost his Latino support from Gov. Mitt Romney’s 27 percent up to 34 percent, his gains would be entirely offset by a mere 1.5 percent drop in the turnout of GOP voters, he said.

The three groups’ ability to rally the GOP voters against Rubio is also complemented by their ability to help him win a good deal that will aid his career, he said. By boosting calls for proper enforcement, they can help Rubio push Democrats to accept a tough deal, such as a so-called “trigger’ that delays the award of work-permits and green cards to illegal immigrants until the revamped enforcement system has proven itself, he said.

So far, “Rubio has it half right” by emphasizing enforcement, said Dane. But “if the GOP really wants to repair their party, they can revitalize it by opposing amnesty and shifting our massive legal-immigration system to a skill-based one,” rather than system which brings in low-skilled people benefiting from government transfers, he said.

But the groups’ distant cooperation with Rubio is complicated by Rubio’s allies and aides.

Rubio’s allies include many business GOP groups, including the extensive network of advocates that have rallied around former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush.

Lopez is also part of that extended network. His website features a testimonial from Jeb Bush’s son, George P. Bush, who is expected to soon run for office in Texas.

Rubio’s chief of staff, Cesar Conda, is also part of the network.

Conda served in President George W. Bush’s White House, but also worked as an advocate for the immigration lawyers’ association.

As a founding partner of a lobbying firm, Navigators Global, he attended a 2003 meeting in the White House to promote a policy favored by the lawyers’ group, which stands to gain enormously from any law that expands or complicates immigration law.

In the late 1990s, Conda also worked as the legislative director for one-term GOP Sen. Spencer Abraham. In 2000, Abraham lost his Michigan Senate seat after NumbersUSA highlighted Abraham’s role in defeating a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would have curbed legal and illegal immigration.

During that 1996 immigration debate, Abraham opposed an employee-identification plan in the bill that would have required and helped employers reject applicants who were not allowed to legally work in the United States.

Conant declined to talk about Conda’s prior work.

“Given Sen. Rubio’s role in a smear campaign against pro-enforcement groups,” said Steve Camarota, the research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, “it does raise the question of how serious he is about enforcement.”

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