Conservatives tell GOP: Look past Obama order on immigration

Supporters of immigration reform protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C. Nov. 7, 2014
Supporters of immigration reform protest outside the White House in Washington, D.C. Nov. 7, 2014 MCT

As Capitol Hill prepares for battle over President Barack Obama’s planned executive order on immigration, a coalition of business and conservative leaders has a message for Republicans: Don’t lose focus.

They coordinated messages in events across the country Wednesday to convince GOP lawmakers that, regardless of what Obama does, regardless of what the right-wingers scream, Republican leadership needs to pursue a congressional solution to the immigration problem.

“When you’re in the majority, you can speak in a soft voice,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said in an interview following a panel discussion with conservatives in Washington.

Obama will announce his plan with a prime-time address Thursday night from the White House, followed by a trip Friday to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, where he’ll sign the paperwork and push Republicans to move ahead with an immigration overhaul.

Obama said in a video posted on the White House Facebook page that he planned Thursday to outline the steps he can take “to start fixing our broken immigration system” within what he called his “lawful authority as president.”

“Everybody agrees that our immigration system is broken,” he said. “Unfortunately, Washington has allowed the problem to fester for too long.”

The details of the plan, some of which have been leaked to the press, have set off a wave of discontent among Republicans who see the move as an unconstitutional power grab. Republicans leaders including incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, say the move would poison future cooperative efforts with the White House.

Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the Partnership for a New American Economy, said the demographics of the country are rapidly changing. Republican leaders can’t ignore the speed with which the Latino and Asian voting bloc is growing if the party wants to remain competitive in 2016 and beyond, he said.

Robbins cites his group’s own findings that there are more than 13.2 million unregistered Hispanic and Asian eligible voters in the United States, with high numbers in swing states such as Texas (2.4 million), Florida (814,000), Colorado (272,000), and Nevada (154,000). By 2020, another 4.2 million Hispanic and Asian residents are expected to become naturalized citizens and therefore eligible to vote, the partnership found.

The coordinated message to Republicans on Wednesday included events in Washington and across the country to convince lawmakers that, regardless of what Obama does, the nation needs a congressional solution to its immigration problem. Several leading business leaders and conservatives, including Norquist and U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donahue, wrote commentary in a special section of the conservative daily newspaper The Washington Times.

“When the president makes his announcement, Republicans really face two choices,” said Charles Conner, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. “They can be goaded into declaring this almost a holy war, or they can certainly not support the president, but temper their criticism of the president and go about their business of governing and solving this problem.”

It was only two years ago that many Republican leaders, like Boehner, appeared to be harnessing their political futures to passing an immigration overhaul. Obama’s re-election in 2012, with overwhelming support from Latinos, plunged the GOP into an identity crisis as members wrestled with an image problem.

The Republican National Committee conducted a months-long review that concluded that Hispanics thought Republicans “do not care” about them. Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called on the party to embrace changing the immigration laws or risk shrinking to the GOP’s core constituency.

But two years is an eternity in Washington.

Those leading the charge for change are some of the biggest names in business and conservative circles, including Norquist, former New York City mayor and media baron Michael Bloomberg, J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr. of the Marriott International hotel company, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They’re seeking, among other things, a labor pool with more high- and low-skilled immigrants.

To gain support, they likely will first focus on encouraging the original 14 Senate Republicans who helped pass the Senate immigration bill in 2013 to speak out. That legislation, which was never taken up by the House of Representatives, would have boosted border security and put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. But some of the senators, such as Republican Marco Rubio of Florida, have disowned the bill.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., followed party talking points last week, telling McClatchy that Obama would be “poisoning the well” of cooperation if he enacts the executive order. He said Obama should at least give the new Congress a chance to find a resolution.

But McCain stopped short of saying that issuing an executive order would eliminate the possibility of Congress taking up the matter again before the 2016 elections.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, went a little further. Obama should not act on an executive order, Hatch said, but he added that even if the president does go forward, it is important to find a congressional solution.

“I still think we have to take it back and do it right,” Hatch said in an interview. “I’m willing to work on this because it’s an important set of issues. And it’s something that needs to be done.”

The White House noted that the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill more than 500 days ago, “and while the country waits for House Republicans to vote, the president will act – like the presidents before him – to fix our immigration system in the ways that he can.”

Republicans have vowed to fight Obama on the measure, challenging its legality.

“If ‘Emperor Obama’ ignores the American people and announces an amnesty plan that he himself has said over and over again exceeds his constitutional authority, he will cement his legacy of lawlessness and ruin the chances for congressional action on this issue – and many others,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner.