GOP Divided on Immigration Policy

This week, President Bush resurrected the debate over imimgration policy with speeches urging a guest worker program and tighter security. Bush's tone on the issue has changed since he addressed it last year, reflecting divisions within the Republican party.

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President Bush's speech this week on immigration reintroduced a volatile political issue. In 2004, the president tried and failed to get Congress to change immigration laws. This year, the challenge will be even greater because the politics of immigration have become more difficult. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson explains why.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

For George W. Bush, immigration used to be the issue that signaled more than any other that he was a compassionate conservative. Since he first ran for president in 2000, his mantra, when talking about illegal immigrants, was this.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: They want to provide for their families. Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River. People are coming to put food on the table.

LIASSON: But things have changed. When the president gave his big immigration reform speech on Monday in Arizona, he still referred to America as a welcoming society and he repeated his call for a guest worker program, something the business constituency of the GOP badly wants, but this time the president's overall emphasis was different.

Pres. BUSH: We want to make it clear that when people violate immigration laws, they're going to be sent home, and they need to stay at home.

LIASSON: What changed the president's tone? There's been an uproar in the Republican Party's conservative base. No one is more closely identified with that uproar than Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. His calls to seal the border and stop providing public services to illegal immigrants were once considered too extreme, but now they're finding a wider audience. Recently, 82 House Republicans wrote the president asking him to push the legislation that would strengthen the border but do nothing about illegal immigrants already in this country.

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado): I think enough people around the country have made their concerns known to their elected officials that it has actually percolated up to the White House and certainly to the leadership in my party anyway. So it is a sea change. People are actually willing to stay on the same side of the hall when I'm approaching them in the Congress and say hello to me.

LIASSON: Tancredo was once dismissed as a fringe actor in the immigration debate, and although the majority of the Republican Party has not embraced all of his positions, such as denying birth right citizenship to children of illegal immigrants, his views can no longer be considered out of the Republican mainstream. And that's apparent to Tancredo outside the halls of Congress as well. Lately he's been spending a lot of time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, rural states where illegal immigration didn't used to be a problem but is now. Those states also happen to hold the first three Republican presidential contests. Tancredo says his purpose is to pressure the better-known candidates to adopt his positions.

Rep. TANCREDO: I can make life difficult for them. I can force them into dealing with this issue. At least I'm going to try.

LIASSON: And he's satisfied with the impact he's been having so far. Hundreds of people show up for his rallies, and more importantly, Tancredo says, he's been invited to brief leading Republican presidential hopefuls such as Virginia Senator George Allen.

Rep. TANCREDO: That's the first time that has ever happened, by the way, that a US senator has called me and asked me to come over and talk to him about anything.

LIASSON: Although it's the Republicans that face deeper internal splits on the issue, between the Chamber of Commerce and the conservative grassroots, immigration is also complicating politics for Democrats. It came up in the Virginia governor's race last month when the Republican, Jerry Kilgore, ran this ad against the Democrat, Tim Kaine.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Kaine favors taxpayer-funded job centers and supports instate tuition discounts for illegals. Taxpayer benefits for illegal immigrants. What part of illegal does Tim Kaine not understand?

LIASSON: When Kaine's pollster Pete Brodnitz heard that ad, he was worried that the Republicans had found an effective way to use the immigration issue against his candidate.

Mr. PETE BRODNITZ (Tim Kaine's Pollster): We were concerned that the way the issue might play out is that they'll try and find ways to show that Democrats support using taxpayer dollars to subsidize illegal aliens in order to make the case that not only are Democrats big taxers, which is what they normally like to say, but also they want to take your taxpayer dollars and they want to give them to people who are practicing illegal behavior.

LIASSON: Although immigration was not the decisive issue in the Virginia race, Brodnitz believes what Tim Kaine said in response offers lessons for other Democrats.

Mr. BRODNITZ: If I was Jerry Kilgore and I was holding a fund-raiser with President Bush, I'd talk to him about the fact that our borders aren't getting enforced and that the president should really do something about it.

LIASSON: In other words, says Brodnitz, Democrats can never let the Republicans paint them as soft on the border. That's why leading liberals, such as Ted Kennedy and Hillary Rodham Clinton, emphasize border security and why Democrats, even if they support legislation offering a path to legalization for undocumented workers, insist that they are not for amnesty. While Democrats worry about attacks from Republicans, and Republicans worry about their conservative base, both parties are still trying to court the fastest-growing voting group in America, Hispanics, who, says pollster Sergio Bendixen, are not of one mind about immigration.

Mr. SERGIO BENDIXEN (Pollster): I don't think Hispanic voters are very dogmatic on this issue. In other words, I don't think they support one formula over the other in that they would punish politicians for being for this bill or for the other bill. But what Hispanic voters have made clear they will not accept is people demagoguing the issue and making reactionary statements based on their perception of undocumented immigrants.

LIASSON: Former California Governor Pete Wilson tried that in the 1990s, driving Hispanics in his state into the arms of the Democrats where they've remained, for presidential elections at least, ever since. But Bendixen, whose political clients are mostly Democrats, points out that George W. Bush took a completely different approach, and he achieved tremendous success, increasing his share of the Hispanic vote from 21 percent in 2000 to around 40 percent in 2004.

Mr. BENDIXEN: He has been very courageous about immigration to the point where he has made it clear to the country that--the economic contributions that the undocumented make to the United States. That is something I never thought I would hear from an American president. And now the Republican Party, if they allow their more conservative elements on this issue to take center stage and define them, it may hurt them in terms of being able to hold on to all of the gains that President Bush has made over the last five years.

LIASSON: White House adviser Matthew Dowd was the president's senior strategist during the 2004 campaign. He says to hang on to those gains, Republicans have to follow in President Bush's footsteps on this issue, even though he won't be on the ballot again.

Mr. MATTHEW DOWD (White House Adviser): I think the most important thing is is when you talk about this thing, you talk about it in the context that doesn't seem to shut people out but deals with an issue they are concerned about that understands and speaks with it with some compassion about people's families. I think it's very important for Republicans to continue to do that.

LIASSON: The immigration issue presents challenges for both parties, but it's an issue that doesn't have any obvious partisan advantage, and often you can find Republicans and Democrats on the same side of the debate. Ted Kennedy, for example, is sponsoring one of the main immigration reform bills of the Senate along with Republican John McCain. And although the immigration issue is divisive and emotional, it's also so complex that it's unlikely to become the kind of issue that either party can use against the other. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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