CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — A U.S. Senate candidate who has repeatedly lost elections over his anti-immigrant platform now says he “regrets” his harsh rhetoric from the past.
Speaking to a room full of immigration activists and Republicans at the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition on Tuesday, Illinois state senator Jim Obeweis told the room, “I’ve been perceived as a hawk on the issue of illegal immigration. Early on I spoke forcibly of the need to secure our borders and bring our nation under the rule of law… I regret the harsh tone of my rhetoric 10 years ago. But my principles remain intact.”
Oberweis learned that lesson from repeated failed bids for governor, Senate, and Congress. His 2008 loss in a congressional race was credited to a strong Latino turnout. In 2005, it came out that Oberweis’ employed undocumented workers who were paid a mere $3.20 an hour. During a Senate bid in 2004, he ran ads accusing “illegal aliens” stealing enough jobs to “fill Soldier Field every single week.”
Today, as the Republican opponent to Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the 2004 ad still haunts Oberweis’ attempt to appeal to a wider voter base.
Oberweis has affiliations with and strong support from NumbersUSA, a group that seeks to dramatically cut legal immigration. According to NumbersUSA, Oberweis thinks the U.S. should limit family-based immigration, end birthright citizenship, and make immigrants’ lives so difficult they would rather self-deport.
Of the Republican speakers Tuesday, Oberweis was one of few not to endorse the comprehensive Senate bill that passed last summer, as he called for more beyond the bill’s $40 billion border security measures. He rejected a path to citizenship for immigrant parents, but supported the idea for undocumented youth.
“I believe children who are brought here illegally who have grown up in this country should be given a clear path to citizenship,” Oberweis said. “I believe the parents who have entered this country should not be given amnesty or a short path to citizenship. I believe they should be offered non-immigrant visas to allow them to stay in this country legally so as to not break up families, should be allowed to return to their home countries and reenter the US legally and pay taxes but should not be allowed access to government entitlements without becoming citizens.”
Oberweis’ new language reflects recent Republican attempts to rebrand as a minority-friendly party — an effort that has not gone all that well. This effort includes the House’s most conservative members, from Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) to Joe Barton (R-TX), who are striking a somewhat more moderate tone going into the midterms even though just one year earlier, Gohmert and company exploited the Boston Marathon bombing to derail an immigration bill. Now that he faces a tough reelection in a Hispanic-heavy district, Tea Party Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) suddenly supports immigration reform and is studying Spanish — a major turnaround from his efforts to kill bilingual ballots and telling minority voters to learn English.
Illinois has the sixth-largest Hispanic population of eligible voters, making up 9 percent of state voters. In contrast to Oberweis, third-term Democratic incumbent Durbin helped introduce the Senate immigration bill and highlighted the urgency of reform by joining a 24-hour fast last year.