Election Losses Change Republican Strategy on Immigration Reform

Republicans hope to win new voters with new stance on immigration.

FE_PR_090130immigration.jpg
By SHARE

A bipartisan immigration framework, unveiled by a group of six senators Monday, is just the latest example of elections having consequences.

Despite a Republican presidential primary marked in many ways by candidates falling over themselves to crack down harder on illegal immigrants, the GOP is seeking a way to make amends with the fastest growing voting bloc in America following their 2012 presidential election loss.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the party's 2012 vice presidential candidate, said Sunday on NBC's Meet The Press his party desperately needs to "expand our appeal."

[ENJOY: Political Cartoons on Illegal Immigration]

"We have to expand our appeal to more people and show … how our ideas are better at solving the challenges people are experiencing in their daily lives," he said. Ryan, long a GOP leader on fiscal issues, is fast rising in influence with his House colleagues on other issues and he offered praise for fellow rising star Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's outline for immigration reform.

Rubio's vision emphasizes the importance of a guest worker program for seasonal laborers and enabling highly skilled workers, investors and entrepreneurs apply for visas, paired with increased border control to reduce the number of illegal crossings. Rubio also calls for a pathway to citizenship for otherwise law abiding illegal immigrants already in the United States, but only if they agree to pay any owed back taxes and then they would be 'put in line' behind legal immigrants. .

"It's a system that's broken and needs fixing," Ryan said. "Immigration is a good thing, we're here because of immigration. I think those Rubio principles do a really good job of adhering to the founding principles, respecting the rule of law and respecting those who came here for a better life."

[RELATED: Senators Launching Immigration Push]

But it's unclear, as of yet, whether or not a party can rapidly change it's tone and core beliefs on such a controversial issue, particularly from the ground up. In recent years, conservatives in states like Arizona have been on the cutting edge of anti-immigration policies, from ramping up anti-immigrant rhetoric to passing laws requiring proof of residence.

"The GOP is torn," says Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University and analyst for CNN en Espanol. He says if a majority of congressional Republicans support any immigration plan offering some illegals a path to citizenship, conservatives outside Washington may construe it as akin to amnesty.

The bipartisan Senate plan, which Rubio helped craft, includes his vision of a potential path to citizenship for some immigrants already living in the U.S., but would include provisions for stronger border security and tracking of immigrants here through visas, according to the Associated Press.

[DEBATE: Was Obama Right to Grant Young Illegal Immigrants Work Permits?]

"The party 'elites' will also be blamed by those against this type of policy, including many governors in states like Arizona and South Carolina, many state legislators and GOP secretaries of state who want to go after illegals and illegal voters," Schmidt says.

Beyond that, many vocal opponents of reforms that would ease the path to citizenship are still prominent in the House, such as Iowa Rep. Steve King, he adds.

One House GOP aide acknowledges a certain number of conservative lawmakers are going to stick to their views "but for a large chunk of the conference, they realize we have to modernize on this issue if we want to win going forward."

One major factor looming over any bipartisan agreement is President Barack Obama. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern about his level of involvement in any deal. Many times during Obama's first term, his support for something has poisoned its appeal for Republicans or made it more politically difficult for them to support it because he is such a polarizing figure to their base. Democrats have largely been asking Obama to be clear on the principles he'd like a comprehensive reform package to include, but leave the deal-making to Congress.