The Senate “Gang of 8” has done its job in producing a bipartisan immigration bill. Now they just have to convince Republicans to vote for it. To that end, pro-reform lawmakers and interest groups are launching a massive, co-ordinated effort to address every possible conservative concern about the bill — and undermine the opponents stoking them.
Conversations with activists and senators this month as well as their own public efforts reveal a deep playbook designed to address skeptics from every possible angle. Here are a few of the major avenues they’re pursuing.
Get Marco Rubio To Hold Their Hand
Rubio really is a one-man conservative outreach program when it comes to this bill. His ties to the tea party base are so deep that reformers were constantly worried he’d abandon negotiations rather than risk an inevitable backlash by signing onto a compromise. Rubio made light of the dynamic at a press conference introducing the legislation on Thursday when he took the podium, said “Actually, I changed my mind,” and pretended to walk off.It’s created tension at times with more progressive reformers, but Rubio’s general strategy has been to acknowledge conservative complaints about the bill even while he refuses to back off his support. After reform skeptics in the Senate complained the process was moving too fast, for example, he fought to make sure there were multiple hearings on the bill. He’s spent much of the week appearing on conservative talk radio shows, many of which are hosted by skeptics — even leading opponents — of reform. And his office launched a website devoted entirely to knocking down “myths” about immigration reform, including a false claim this week on conservative blogs that the bill would give free “amnesty phones” to undocumented immigrants.
“It’s tragic that a nation of immigrants remains divided on immigration,” Rubio said at the presser.
None of the other “Gang of 8” Republicans have particularly strong followings on the populist right, so Rubio is really the only option when it comes to this kind of outreach. He’ll face another big test this month containing the fallout from the Boston bombing, where he’s already trying to ease Republican concerns about the bill’s national security implications.
Give ‘Em The Old Time Religion
Major evangelical leaders, among other religious groups, are pushing hard for an immigration bill in social conservative circles, making an explicitly Biblical argument that scripture requires Christians to love and respect the “stranger” from foreign lands. Among those promoting reform is Ralph Reed, chairman of the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition and a longtime GOP operative.
“As people of faith, this is not just an economic and security issue; it is a moral issue.” Reed said last Wednesday. “This bill, while not perfect, is an important starting point to reforming and modernizing U.S. immigration law so it reflects faith-based principles of compassion for the alien, the primacy of the family, respect for the rule of law, and protecting U.S. security and sovereignty.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has cited evangelical efforts as particularly helpful in his home state, where he’s trying to convince white conservatives ahead of his 2014 re-election that he’s not selling them out on the issue.
Another factor driving religious interest in the bill: Latinos are a major source of new converts for evangelicals and Mormons.
“The 7.8 million Hispanic evangelicals are looking to see real leadership not partisanship on immigration reform,” Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said in a press conference on Wednesday.
Lay Down The Law
Republicans are emphasizing the bill’s border security provisions whenever possible in selling it on the right, noting that undocumented immigrants will not be able to apply for a green card until a host of new enforcement measures go into effect.
No one has been more active in courting the right on this front than Rubio, who is far more likely to talk about the enforcement measures of his bill than any other aspect, especially in conversations with conservative interviewers.
The National Immigration Forum, as part of their “Bibles, Badges and Business” campaign to court the right, has also included law enforcement officials in calls to discuss how reform might benefit their day to day jobs. It make it easier for officers to question witnesses in crimes who might otherwise be afraid to come forward due to their legal status, for example, or allow federal officials to devote more resources towards drug and human traffickers instead of undocumented immigrants.
“State governments and our law enforcement officers have been put in an untenable position caused by this failure of the federal government,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller (R) said in a statement Thursday.
Win The Economic Argument
Americans For Tax Reform president Grover Norquist was behind the podium at the “Gang of 8’s” press conference Thursday and he, along with big business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, are working overtime to sell fiscal conservatives on immigration reform.
“This bill will increase the size of our American workforce, as well as its productivity,” Norquist said in a statement praising the bill. “Much needed highly skilled talent will start businesses and create jobs in the United States, rather than receiving an American degree and returning home to compete with us. And temporary and seasonal workers will fill jobs that remain vacant, strengthening and enlarging the American workforce.”
In recent days, economic conservatives been heavily promoting a new paper by Republican economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin that suggests reform would add trillions of dollars in GDP growth by opening up new sources of prized workers and entrepreneurs.
There’s a reason they’re making such a big deal out of the economic effects. Their opponents are going to be pushing the exact opposite argument. Jim DeMint, the newly installed president of the Heritage Foundation, is already trying to whip conservatives against the bill by playing up the costs of government benefits once newly legalized immigrants become citizens.
Mindful of these concerns, the Republican authors of the bill took care to make sure that most undocumented immigrants can’t access any federal benefits at all for at least a decade and the “Gang of 8” is pledging to keep their bill deficit neutral — something that past scores of bills suggest is highly plausible.
Kneecap The Other Side
One of immigration reform’s biggest advantages politically is that it draws financial and grassroots support from a wide array of business and activist causes, while there are few interests outside of the populist right bankrolling opposition to a bill. But just to be safe, conservatives are organizing a widespread campaign to discredit anti-immigration groups by painting them as liberal extremists.
Pro-reform conservatives are focusing their attacks on groups like NumbersUSA, FAIR, and the Center for Immigration Studies, that were founded by John Tanton, an anti-immigration activist whose convictions stemmed largely from his fears of population growth in general. The attacks have stepped up recently, with an op-ed in the Daily Caller last Thursday by GOP consultant Soren Dayton denouncing the groups’ leaders as fake conservatives.
“A lot of elected officials and other leaders have been duped by these groups, frankly,” Mario Lopez, president of the conservatives Hispanic Leadership Fund, told TPM on Thursday. “They don’t disclose their real agenda.”
Officials with the groups in question say the accusations are off base and that, despite the views of some of their founders and board members on issues like abortion and population growth, their organizations are strictly concerned with limiting immigration. And attacking them is not without its own risks. RedState’s Erick Erickson wrote on Monday that he could not support immigration reform in part because he felt its supporters were unfairly maligning fellow conservatives at anti-immigration groups.