For a few moments in a room full of conservatives on Capitol Hill Tuesday, there was a hint of soul-searching as they gathered to review poll numbers that for the most part reflected positively on their chances in fall’s midterm elections.
The gray clouds darkening the mostly sunny skies were the immigration numbers, one of the few issues on which Independent voters were more in line with Democrats than Republicans.
While about 60 percent of Republicans in the poll of 1,000 likely voters surveyed by Ayres, McHenry & Associates, Inc. for Resurgent Republic said they oppose a “path to citizenship” for immigrants currently in the country illegally, 54 percent of Independents and 64 percent of Democrats said they supported such a policy.
Ramesh Ponnuru, a conservative columnist for National Review, cautiously hinted Tuesday at a panel to discuss the Resurgent Republic findings that the outright opposition among many conservatives to a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants may not be a wise strategy.
“The most popular argument against a path to citizenship, or as the critics would call it ‘amnesty’ is that it rewards law-breaking and thus it’s wrong in principle,” he said.
“And I think it’s interesting that was tested in this poll, and that did not seem to be a winning message.”
Ponnuru said he thinks the border should be secured before anything is done to normalize the illegal immigrant population. But in the meantime, he said, “people are not interested in a message on immigration that seems personally hostile to immigrants, even to illegal immigrants.”
A poll released by the New York Times and CBS News Tuesday echoed the findings of the Resurgent Republic poll: 43 percent out of a survey of 1,079 said they favor allowing “illegal immigrants” to stay in the U.S. and pursue citizenship.
The primary concern on immigration for most Americans is securing the border, according to both polls, along with a third released by Gallup and USA Today.
But the distance between the Republican base and the rest of the electorate on what to do about the 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants in the country foreshadows problems down the road for the party’s relationships with Independents and with Hispanics, who are the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority.
It is for this reason – among possibly one or two others – that Democrats have begun to talk about taking up an immigration bill. Last week they released a draft summary of legislation that gives illegal immigrants a “path to citizenship,” though it does lay down onerous requirements to pay fines and back taxes, learn the English language and wait for years before being normalized.
Ponnuru said he thinks Republicans will pay a price electorally in 2012 and beyond, but not necessarily this fall.
On Capitol Hill, even the most centrist Republican lawmakers, and many Democrats, say little these days on immigration unless it centers on securing the border or enforcing the law.
“Many of my constituents are uncomfortable with the concept of treating individuals who came here illegally in the same manner as individuals who played by the rules,” Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, told The Daily Caller.
“The first response that most of us would say is you can’t really get into a debate about other elements of immigration policy until you have a secure border,” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican.
Support for a path to citizenship is “probably not going to be the prevailing view” among Republican senators, Thune said.
A senior Republican aide explained that a “path to citizenship” would automatically be labeled “amnesty” by politicians and advocates on the right.
The GOP aide outlined a hard line position of conservative support for securing the border with Mexico while simultaneously cracking down on the employment in the U.S. of illegal immigrants by requiring that any U.S. worker show some form of geometric identification in order to be employed.
Enforcing employment verification, the aide said, would deprive many of the illegal immigrants of their motivation for being in the U.S., causing many of them to leave.
However, Kate O’Beirne, president of the National Review Institute, did not share that opinion. She indicated that if border security is taken care of, “I don’t even think the idea of citizenship eventually is taboo, actually.”
“It seems to me, if people thought that the border was secure enough that today’s illegal immigrants won’t be replaced by similar numbers 15 or 20 years hence, they would have a whole different attitude about addressing illegal immigrants who are currently here.”