Major Tea Party Leader Backs Immigration Reform


For the past several months, Tea Party groups have been on a campaign touting “no amnesty.” Vigorous opposition by Tea Party members of Congress has been blamed for thwarting House Speaker John Boehner (R-NV) from bringing an immigration bill or package to a vote. Tea Party candidates on the campaign trail have gone so far as to suggest “ranchers should be allowed to shoot on sight anyone illegally crossing the border” and call for self-deportation.

But on Wednesday, the co-founder of a major national Tea Party group issued a strong call for immigration reform now. “Congress must pass legislation that will fix our broken system,” Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo wrote in an op-ed. While Russo shied away from endorsing a particular proposal, his op-ed touted not just border security but a path “out of the shadows” for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

In a conference call with reporters, Russo touted a new poll that shows some 70 percent of Republicans who identify with the Tea Party movement want immigration reform this year, they want a way for undocumented immigrants to attain either a path to citizenship or citizenship. Sixty-nine percent even reported that they would rather vote for a candidate who supports reform that includes both border security and a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in this country, while only 25.8 percent would vote for a candidate who supports border security alone. The sample in the poll, released by Tea Party Express with The Partnership for a New American Economy and Americans for Tax Reform, was 84 percent white, and 70 percent identified as born again or evangelical Christians.

Russo attributed Tea Party resistance in part to distortions of vocabulary. “What they really hear is amnesty,” Russo said. “And that vocabulary needs to change.”

Russo declined requests to align himself with a particular proposal or bill, and focused instead on getting conservatives into the conversation. “There are so many bad ideas on immigration reform that too many conservatives have become satisfied with just saying no,” he said.

After pressure from Tea Party groups, Boehner said in February he was taking immigration reform off the table because of distrust of President Obama’s enforcement of the law, even though the president has vigorously enforced border protection provisions.

Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist stood by this Obama-blaming, saying that Obama’s limited moves to avert deportation of some non-criminal individuals has “undermined and hurt the effort” but that “we’ll get through it,” implying conservatives would not allow it to thwart reform.

In fact, comments in recent days suggest that after months of sparring over immigration reform, Obama and some conservatives now agree about one thing: the time to pass immigration reform is now.

Just yesterday, Obama said the House had “a very narrow window” of two or three months to act on immigration reform before the midterm elections take over.

And on today’s press call, former AOL chairman Steve Case said “the next couple of months are critical.” He attributed past resistance to politicking ramping up to the filing deadlines for congressional primary elections. But now that most deadlines have passed, he said, “we do have a few months. I think if we fail to get this done before the August recess, we do lose momentum for a number of reasons.”

American Conservative Union Chair Al Cardenas added, “I believe that there’s more clarity in the rank and file of the membership now than there was 90 days ago, that the members are focused, and that we’ll begin to see some tangible definite product by way of legislation coming our way.”

The push comes a day after Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donahue said the Republican party “shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016” if they don’t move on immigration reform.

No one expects a proposal coming out of the House at this point to mirror the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill passed almost a year ago. Boehner said this week that House reform should be done “sequentially” in “four, five, six … bite-sized portions” over “a week or two” or even a month. In which case, they don’t have much time to get started.