Not all Republicans closed to immigration reform

“Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul,” former President George W. Bush told a conference on immigration and the economy Tuesday.

It was surprising to hear the former president break his long silence on policy issues, but his remarks were a welcomed addition to the immigration reform conversation going on within the Republican Party.

In the weeks since the election, Republican thought leaders and public officials have raced away from the position Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took during the GOP primaries, when he said he would support policies that encourage undocumented immigrants to “self-deport.”

Romney ended up earning only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote; Bush earned 44 percent of the vote in his successful campaign for re-election in 2004.

In his second term, Bush tried twice to convince Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform plan that included many of the proposals being discussed today but was blocked, first by opposition from within his own party and again by opposition from Democratic lawmakers.

President Obama then failed to pass an immigration reform plan during his first term, despite having Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress for his first two years.

Immigration has long been difficult for both parties, with Democratic labor activists concerned that immigrants will drive down wages and some GOP activists determined to prevent the enactment of any law that legalizes the millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the country.

But since the election, opposition to immigration reform seems to be waning in both parties. The media has focused on Republicans, attempting to agitate rifts within the party, but the loud of chorus of Republicans offering support for reasonable immigration reforms over the past few weeks raises questions about how much opposition there ever really was.

A coalition of clergy, law enforcement and business, calling themselves “Bibles, Badges, and Business,” is pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, warned Republicans recently that they will “have to change their ways on immigration reform.”

AOL co-founder Steve Case has taken a lead in speaking for the business community, which benefits from immigrant labor and is pushing for reforms that allow more highly-skilled immigrants with advanced degrees to come to the United States and work.

Conservative Fox News host and talk radio personality Sean Hannity has said he “evolved” on immigration and supports a path to citizenship.

“The majority of people here, if some people have criminal records, you can send them home. But if people are here, law-abiding, participating for years, their kids are born here, you know, it’s first secure the border, pathway to citizenship, done, whatever little penalties you want to put in there, if you want, and it’s done,” he told listeners.

Social conservatives are pushing for immigration reform because they understand the moral importance of treating hardworking and law-abiding immigrants with dignity. Economically minded conservatives and business leaders support immigration reform because it will help our economy and allow more high-skilled workers to join our companies. Now, even conservative talk radio host are coming around.

So, who among the Republican base, exactly, is going to recoil from sensible immigration reform?

No one. Being welcoming toward immigrants should be a Republican principle. Republicans, especially, should want people to want to come to this country and be proud when they do.

Where has all the opposition come for all these years?

Likely, a vocal minority that was amplified by voices on talk radio created the impression that the Republican base wouldn’t accept immigration reform, but Republican voters aren’t closed to the idea. Fierce opposition to immigration reform was more of an illusion than a reality.

It’s a shame Republican leaders weren’t able to figure that out sooner. They may be in a stronger position today if they had.

Tray Smith is a senior majoring in journalism. His column runs on Thursdays.

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