Tea Party divided over immigration

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Tea Party activists who are debating whether to embrace “family values” issues in a year when the economy could make or break the Democrats and sweep their candidates to power are also divided over another hot-button issue — immigration.

One leading Tea Party group has decided to work closely with Roy Beck’s Numbers USA, a well-known “restrictionist” lobby that wants to see immigration, both legal and illegal, reduced.  Together these groups are opposing passage of the DREAM Act, the stand-alone legislation that immigration reform advocates have rallied around as the prospects for passing a broader immigration bill have faded.

However, two other key Tea Party groups, including FreedomWorks, whose co-founder, former House majority leader Dick Armey, supports expanded immigration, say they’ll stay out of the fight over the DREAM Act.

Ideologically, support for immigration is thoroughly consistent with the Tea Party’s enthusiastic endorsement of the unfettered free market.  In fact, for years, libertarian, pro-free enterprise groups like the CATO Institute have joined business groups and immigration advocates in calling for less government regulation of immigration — a position that critics call an “open borders” policy.

But many Tea Party activists believe that restoring the “rule of law” — and regaining control of the country’s borders — is also fundamental to the American ideal of freedom.  They don’t necessarily oppose rising immigration, especially legal immigration, but they are hostile to “amnesties” for illegal aliens that appear to reward “lawbreakers.”

Ironically, anti-immigration Tea Partiers can cite the Founding Fathers in defense of their views.  Ben Franklin spoke out frequently about the dangers of unregulated German immigration, which he felt would dilute the American “ideal” — much as nativists today oppose unrestricted Mexican immigration, fearing it will undermine mainstream culture, including English as the nation’s primary language.

So far, there doesn’t appear to be a consistent Tea Party view on immigration, and with no single national leader, the movement is under no pressure — at least not yet — to develop one.  Different Tea Party groups are free to go their own way, and at the local level, often do.

In Philadelphia, a Tea Party Immigration Coalition (TPIC) formed in early July to oppose the city’s policy of providing “sanctuary” to illegal aliens.  The group reportedly included local trade unions and a key state legislator who supports legal immigration, but opposes illegal immigration on the grounds that it hurts unemployed Philadelphia workers.

But the presence in TPIC of organizers from the Federation Against Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a national advocacy group that’s been accused of nativism and even racism in the past, has called into question how seriously TPIC actually supports immigration, or even immigration reform.

The prospects for political fissures within the Tea Party over immigration are undoubtedly real, however.  In some locales, Tea Party leaders have broadly supported the Arizona crackdown and other expanded police enforcement measures but have drawn the line if the rights of legal residents and US citizens are threatened — as a recent federal court judge found when she blocked key provisions of the Arizona law.

And some Tea Party activists are staunchly opposed to the introduction of a national ID card as a way of weeding out illegal aliens from the workplace.  Their opposition could put them to the “left” of Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans who are championing the national ID as an alternative to the current employer sanctions system and to flawed workplace verification systems like E-Verify.

Given their inclinations to favor citizen privacy, Tea Party activists are also likely to oppose E-Verify, which could provide an important opening for an alliance with pro-immigration groups that opposes expanded workplace enforcement altogether.

Divisions within the Tea Party over immigration parallel the divisions within the GOP between conservatives like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) on the one hand, and Republican moderates and business groups that favor comprehensive immigration reform, including an expanded guest worker program.

Right now, the Tea Party appears likely to serve as an additional brake on any further efforts at compromise by the GOP with the Democrats on immigration reform, especially on the DREAM Act, or the new comprehensive immigration reform bill that Senator Roberto Menendez (D-NJ) is promising to introduce in the next few weeks.

But once Congress returns to the issue in earnest, sometime in 2011 or perhaps 2012, we can expect these divisions to widen as Democrats and Republicans alike turn their attention to the presidential race, amid an economy that may have recovered sufficiently to ease pressure on joblessness, and renewed inter-party competition for the allegiance of Latino voters.

At that point, the current fault line within the Tea Party over immigration could test the movement’s unity, and force it to choose between competing conservative ideals.

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.