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Wednesday, July 7, 2010 - 4:37am

Conservatives Urged To Rethink Immigration Changes

Some prominent conservatives are speaking out in favor of the kind of a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill that many Republicans oppose. The measure includes border security and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

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.

"I've had some of them appeal to me. They say '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'."

Land adds, "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."

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. 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 in doing nothing for both parties:

"Democrats because it scares Hispanics, who can vote, into voting for them, and they can convince them that the 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."

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:

"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?"

"As far as the survival of the Republican party is concerned, I'm more concerned with the survival of my state," says state Sen. Jonathan Paton. He is one of the Republicans running for Congress in the 8th district of Arizona. He voted for the immigration law in the state legislature.

As for the federal government, he says, "We're not asking for more laws, we're asking for them to enforce the laws they already have, and to take that seriously."

Asked if that means, if somebody is here illegally, should they be arrested and deported?

Paton responds, "Yes, absolutely."

If he's elected to the U.S. Congress, Payton says he knows how he would vote on immigration.

"I can't vote for anything that would give a path of citizenship for those who would come into the country illegally," Paton adds.

Despite the arguments of conservatives like Richard Land or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, that is bottom line for most Republicans in Congress, says Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

"That's what causes so much heartburn on the right," Cornyn says. "Because that is viewed as tantamount to amnesty, which is of course a radioactive term."

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 undocumented workers, who pay a fine or plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

"It wouldn't satisfy the left because they want these folks to be on a path to citizenship," Cornyn says. "They'd obviously like them to register to vote, and they'd like to gain the electoral advantage by adding them to their column. I think it would be one way to try to thread the needle."

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 v. Arizona. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]

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