Boehner sets immigration debate, but polls show growing public opposition

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

GOP leaders are finalizing plans for an open debate on immigration to be held by legislators at their late January closed-door strategy session in Cambridge, Md.

The debate will include a panel of legislators, an outside expert, and an open mic, allowing members to comment on a one-page set of “principles” that likely will be released at the event, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

The format will put Speaker of the House John Boehner and immigration advocate Rep. Paul Ryan in the driver’s seat. But a new poll that shows increased voter hostility to an amnesty is highlighting the difficulty that they face in trying to satisfy both their November voters and their business donors.

The new Quinnipiac University poll shows that both independent and GOP voters have swung sharply against an immigration amnesty since last May.

The three-day session will also include events on Obamacare and debt, and the leaders will discuss their plans to fend off the Democrats’ expected campaign themes — a raised minimum wage, paid holidays for some workers, raised pay for women workers — with promises of faster economic growth via GOP policies. Leaders also want to boost a campaign outreach to younger voters, who have suffered the most from President Barack Obama’s economy and Obamacare.

The event will also include motivational speakers, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, retired football coach Lou Holtz, and Henry Evans, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Evans suffered a brain injury that left him able only to move his eyes and a finger. He uses an array of robots and high-tech gear to communicate and run a business.

The Quinnipiac poll, released Jan. 8, asked 1,487 registered voters if they would be more or less likely to support legislators who backed an amnesty, which was euphemistically called “a path to citizenship.”

Fifty-two percent of Republicans and 42 percent of independents said they would be less likely to vote for the legislator, even though Quinnipiac did not even tell the respondents the amnesty would apply to at least 11 million illegals.

This opposition has grown by 50 percent since a May 2013 poll by Quinnipiac, which showed that 36 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of independents said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supports a “pathway to citizenship.”

The new poll also showed that actual support for legislators who back an amnesty dipped slightly, from 26 percent to 25 percent among independents, and from 15 percent to 13 percent among Republicans.

The shifts comes despite vocal support from Obama, extensive cheerleading in the media and expensive advertising by business groups and billionaires, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, media mogul Michael Bloomberg and investor Steve Case. GOP leaders have also tried to mute voters’ opposition by downplaying their efforts to pass a bill.

The Quinnipiac poll did not ask voters for their views about business’ unpopular demand for additional workers.

Currently, the federal government invites in roughly 1 million immigrants and 650,000 non-agricultural guest workers each year to compete for jobs against American high school and college graduates.

The Senate immigration bill, passed in June, would approve the amnesty, and roughly double annual immigration and the inflow of guest workers. The resulting inflow of foreign workers would far exceed the total of 28 million teenagers in the United States, and likely shift several seats after the 2020 census to Democratic-dominated states. The inflow would also shift more of the nation’s wages away from voters and toward donors, exacerbating the economic inequality that Obama recently called “the defining issue of our time.”

Some House leaders want to increase the inflow of guest workers. For example, a judiciary committee bill would allow the food industry to bring in 500,000 foreign workers each year, even though 4 million Americans youths begin looking for work every year.

Various polls show any increased inflow of workers is very unpopular in many parts of the United States.

The hostile shift shown by Qunnipiac may be a surprise to top GOP leaders and their pollsters, some of whom have been hired by business groups to test amnesty-related messaging that ignores the incendiary issue of increased migrant labor. For example, a Jan. 14 report by National Journal claimed that “the biggest threat to Republicans on immigration is in the primaries anyway, strategists say. No one will lose in the general election because they are too soft on immigration.”

The shift among independents is a problem for Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. On Jan 8, he promised to “pull out all the stops” to pass a bill similar to the Senate’s bill.

After his speech, he dismissed worries that an amnesty and guest-worker bill would curb turnout for GOP candidates.

“I’m not worried about GOP turnout because you know who’s going to win this election? Independents,” he told The Daily Caller.

An immigration deal is important to business, especially in the food sector. Companies want to cut payroll costs for high school and university graduates, and also avoid the cost of investing in labor-saving machinery, such as American-made cow-milking robots.

Business is very concerned that their staffing plans will be disrupted by changes in the routine inflow of new immigrants and guest-workers.

GOP leaders want to provide some certainty and predictability to the business guys, but also want to grab the initiative so that the immigration debate is shifted from a focus on the foreigners’ preferences towards policies that help actual Americans, said a person knowledgeable of the situation. For example, the GOP would like to shift the mix of immigrants away from people who get green cards via family connections, and toward people who get visas because of their skills, the person said.

House conservatives, however, are already staking out that populist position, which can help defang Obama’s 2014 campaign strategy.

GOP leaders are also watching the Democrats to see if they’re willing to cooperate with the Americans-first shift, or whether they will maximize their amnesty demands in the hope of ginning up ethnic strife that will send angry Hispanics into the November booths.

Boehner wants a realistic strategy for passage of a good bill, and also to show respect to Hispanic voters who live in nearly all GOP members’ districts, the person said.

Immigration, however, is a very low priority for most Americans, including swing voters.  The January Quinnipiac poll showed that only 5 percent of voters, 10 percent of Hispanics, and 5 percent of independents think immigration should be the most important issue in 2014.

Ten percent of reliable Democratic voters said it is the most important issue.

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