MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON: Richard Land's credentials as a leading evangelical conservative are impeccable. He heads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. And from that influential perch, he's been urging his fellow conservatives to rethink their opposition to a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
D: And if the new conservative coalition is going to be a governing coalition, it's going to have to have a significant number of Hispanics in it. That's dictated by demographics. And you don't get large numbers of Hispanics to support you when you're engaged in anti-Hispanic immigration rhetoric.
LIASSON: Last week, when President Obama gave his speech on immigration, Land was in the audience. In fact, he had urged the president to make the speech. Mr. Obama called on both parties to rise above petty politics to fix the country's broken immigration system. Land says that will be very hard because there's short-term political advantage for both parties in doing nothing.
LOUISE KELLY: Democrats, because it scares Hispanics who can vote into voting for them, and they can convince them Republicans are anti-Hispanic; and Republicans, because they look at these polls that show that 70 percent of Americans support the Arizona law. And they say, you know, we can win with this in November. And my argument is, politicians think about the next election; statesmen think about the next generation.
LIASSON: But even if Republicans are thinking only of the next election, or the next few elections, Land says, the lessons of history should compel them to think again.
LOUISE KELLY: The people who have been anti-immigration have lost every one of these arguments. They lost it with the Irish in the 1830s and '40s, and turned them into Democrats for three generations. They lost it with the Italians in the 1890s and the early part of the 20th century, and turned the Italians into Democrats for three generations. I mean, you know, do they want to do it with the Hispanics, too?
LOUISE KELLY: Well, I guess my response to that is, as far as the survival of the Republican Party is concerned, I'm more concerned with the survival of my state.
LIASSON: That's state Senator Jonathan Paton, one of the Republicans running for Congress in the 8th district of Arizona. He voted for his state's new immigration law in the state legislature. As for the federal government, he says:
LOUISE KELLY: We're not asking for more laws - we're asking for them to enforce the laws that they already have, and to take that seriously.
LIASSON: You mean if somebody is here illegally, they should be arrested and deported?
LOUISE KELLY: Yes, absolutely.
LIASSON: And if he's elected to the U.S. Congress, Paton says, he knows how he would vote on immigration.
LOUISE KELLY: I can't vote for anything that would give a path of citizenship for those who come into the country illegally.
LIASSON: And despite the arguments of conservatives like Richard Land or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who's been working with him, that is the bottom line for most Republicans in Congress, says Texas Senator John Cornyn.
LOUISE KELLY: That is what causes so much heartburn on the right because that is viewed as tantamount to amnesty - which is, of course, a radioactive term.
LIASSON: Cornyn, who says 30 percent of his constituents are Hispanic, represents what could be called the middle of the internal Republican debate on immigration. He says he, too, is for comprehensive immigration legislation - he just doesn't want it to include a pathway to citizenship. He's intrigued by the idea of other forms of legalization - maybe a permanent green card for illegal aliens who pay a fine or plead guilty to a misdemeanor.
LOUISE KELLY: It wouldn't satisfy the left because they want these folks to be on a path to citizenship. They'd obviously like them to register to vote, and they'd like to gain the electoral advantage by adding them to their column. But I think it would be one way to try to thread the needle.
LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.