As the Republican Party redefines its boundaries on immigration reform, conservative immigration groups are working overtime to remind members that a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is bad politics.
NumbersUSA Action, the country's largest grassroots restrictive immigration group, is just one of the organizations gearing up for a bitter battle over how to reform the country's immigration system. Executive Director Roy Beck says support has only grown since his group defeated comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. Five years ago, the group had just over 300,000 members. Today its ballooned to more than 1.4 million, Beck says.
And despite a "vigorous" Capitol Hill operation, Beck says his group's greatest asset is not connecting lobbyists with hill staffers, but connecting concerned constituents directly with their elected officials. Part of what has made NumbersUSA such a major player in the immigration fight is the group's ability to mobilize voters by micro-targeting and reaching out to remind them when their elected official is voting on immigration reform or coming to town.
Since the election in November, Beck says his group's members have sent more than one million faxes to their elected officials in Congress, reminding them just how politically vulnerable they might be if they vote for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a path to citizenship for some of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants. And Beck warns this is just the beginning.
"The momentum will gather once there are specifics. Right now the public resistance is strong, but you are not seeing the red hot outcry yet because you don't have any legislation to come out against," Beck says.
Already, NumbersUSA plans on releasing ads against Republicans and Democrats in swing districts who signal a willingness to pass a plan that includes some sort of amnesty. The first target will be South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is part of the "gang of eight," a bipartisan group of senators who released a comprehensive outline on immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, tighter border security and amnesty for some of the country's DREAMers, individuals who came to the United States illegally as children.
"We expect to start running ads very soon in South Carolina calling attention to Sen. Graham's positions," Beck says. "Any member of Congress who is at odds with a passionate part of their electorate, there is a chance they can see some ads."
Beck sees his operation as the underdog fighting against the rush of money pouring in from the pro-immigration movement.
"There is no way you can stand up against the businesses and the unions. We amalgamate one voter at a time," Beck says. "We make it easy for them to get in touch so they can be heard."
NumbersUSA also scores members on their immigration record, which can be used during their reelections.
But while Beck is confident 2013 will pass without any notable immigration legislation, he and others recognize the GOP tide has turned significantly since the 2012 election.
Republicans lost the Latino vote in a landslide in November with President Barack Obama running away with more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. Yet, groups favoring tighter controls on immigration say that is not evidence that Republicans throughout Congress should start supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"Going after Hispanic voters is not a bad Idea. I am just saying that this monomaniacal focus on the Hispanic vote is really more an artifact of political consultants and activists talking something into existence that never really was there," says Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington that supports tighter controls on immigration."
Efforts being spearheaded by Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who straddles the line between the new and old guard of the GOP and has made strides in convincing conservatives of the need for comprehensive immigration reform, may be gaining momentum now. But groups on the right say Republicans and vulnerable Democrats are making a political miscalculation.
The immigration issue is one that elicits visceral responses from constituents, something groups like NumbersUSA hope to capitalize on. This week Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, one of the gang of eight, was reminded what he is up against at a town hall meeting in Arizona when he had to fight back against heckling constituents.
"When push comes to shove and the gang of eight comes forth with a bill it is going to be something that Republicans are not going to be able to accept," Krikorian says. "So far this is just foreplay. It is not real yet. When it becomes real you are going to see some mighty push back."
Part of that push back, Krikorian says, comes from voters who believe that this will not be the last time Congress asks to grant amnesty to the country's illegal immigrants. In 1986, a comprehensive immigration bill passed Congress that included a path to citizenship and tighter border control measures. However, the country now has 11 million illegal immigrants compared to 5 million in the late 1980s.
"There is a trust gap. The political elites have lost the trust of the public on this issue. No one believes the promises of enforcement being made now will be honored," says Krikorian
Brad Bailey, founder of the Texas Immigration Solutions, a group that seeks to change Republican attitudes about immigration reform, says anti-immigration groups are simply in denial about the political reality of immigration reform.
"They have hijacked the issue and nothing gets done. I firmly believe they have done some major damage to our Republican Party brand," Bailey says. "We have the ability to really connect with the Hispanic community, but when you are listening to some of these radical groups, the anti-immigration rhetoric is a political loser."