As leading conservative voices, such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Republican National Committee officials take steps toward embracing comprehensive immigration reform that may or may not include some path to citizenship for more than 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States, groups are girding for a fight against any bill that sniffs of amnesty.
Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, a bipartisan group aimed at rallying support against granting amnesty, says the group is ready to ensure lawmakers hear "directly from the American people" when it comes to immigration reform.
"We are concerned about the numbers of immigrants coming in because of their impact on particularly low-wage American workers, and the costs of immigration to taxpayers and also on quality of life issues, just simply because of the population growth that immigration represents," she says.
Jenks says the most important part of any immigration package is implementing a system similar to E-Verify, which would allow employers to check the legal status of all workers via an electronic database.
"Unless you take serious steps to take away the jobs, which is E-verify, you can't stop illegal immigration," she says.
It's something that Paul, a Tea Party champion, specifically said he opposes due to privacy and government overreach concerns as well as the impact it could have on businesses.
Jenks says Paul's recent immigration speech reminded her a lot of President George W. Bush's stance.
"Basically, Rand Paul said if you want to come here and you want to work, we'll find a place for you," she says. "Well that's great, but we have 20 million Americans who can't find full-time jobs and want them, and most of those Americans are low skilled. A lot of them just have a high school diploma or less. What about them?"
The divergent viewpoints illustrate the struggle the Republican Party is going through as it recovers from 2012 election losses that featured a lopsided vote among Hispanics, who widely favored Democrats. A recent election review conducted by the RNC highlighted the need for the party to expand its base and particularly its appeal among Latinos, the fastest growing demographic in the United States.
"We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," wrote the report's authors. "If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all."
And focus groups conducted in Iowa and South Carolina, both early presidential primary states with a reputation for having anti-immigration hard-liners among the Republican base, reveal there is room in the party for compromise on the issue.
"Republican primary voters strongly oppose illegal immigration and are quick to emphasize the rule of law," said a summary of the focus groups drafted by Resurgent Republic, a right-leaning polling and messaging firm. "Yet nearly all of participants in Iowa and South Carolina do not believe 11 million undocumented immigrants should be deported."
That dichotomy – wanting to discourage further illegal immigration but embracing the reality that exists now – is the tension that conservatives are coping with. How far they are willing to go may depend on how effective people like Jenks are in mobilizing their base and lighting up congressional phone lines.
House and Senate lawmakers are expected to unveil separate proposals in the coming weeks.