MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Well, while the immigration debate focuses on Arizona, here's another discussion taking place. A few prominent conservatives are speaking out in favor of the kind of comprehensive immigration bill many Republicans oppose -one that would include border security, and then a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
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.
Dr. RICHARD LAND (President, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention): I've had some of them appeal to me, saying, Richard, you're going to divide the conservative coalition. And I said, well, I may divide the old conservative coalition, but I'm not going to divide the new one.
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.
Mr. LAND: 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.
Mr. LAND: 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?
State Senator JONATHAN PATON (Republican, Arizona): 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:
Sen. PATON: 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?
Sen. PATON: Yes, absolutely.
LIASSON: And if he's elected to the U.S. Congress, Paton says, he knows how he would vote on immigration.
Sen. PATON: 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.
Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): 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.
Sen. CORNYN: 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: But before Cornyn gets a chance to test his theory about the motives of his Democratic opponents, he and other Republicans will have to resolve their own debate about immigration, and what they want to happen after the border is secured: deportation, legalization or citizenship.
That's a debate that will take several years to resolve and right now, it's being obscured by the legal drama of the United States versus Arizona.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.