The co-founder of and chief strategist for one of the biggest tea party organizations is coming out in support of overhauling the nation's immigration laws, a bold statement that could energize advocates and alienate conservatives.
Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express broke the news in an op-ed titled "Conservatives Need to Fix the Broken Immigration System," published by CQ Roll Call early Wednesday morning. In that piece, the longtime GOP operative and consultant argued that "conservatives should be at the forefront of reform so the law reflects the just interests of the United States, not misty-eyed ideals of some of the liberal do-gooder reformers."
That means no special pathways to citizenship that allow undocumented immigrants to cut in line, Russo cautioned, but rather some reasonable procedures that require "the 11 million people who are here illegally obey the law, pay taxes and come out of the shadows.
"We have to get them right by the law in exchange for legal status, but not unbridled amnesty," Russo wrote. "This should include penalties, background checks to root out criminals, and the requirement that they learn English, understand the Constitution and be committed to our basic freedoms."
Russo did not single out the House Republican Conference for its lack of consensus on whether to move forward with immigration overhaul legislation, nor did he name-check members of GOP leadership on whom the onus lies to move such legislation forward.
But Russo's support for a comprehensive immigration fix that includes a legal status pathway — plus his suggestion that "conservatives need to seize on immigration reform" in order to "reaffirm who we are and what makes our country great" — is likely to raise eyebrows on all sides of the immigration debate.
Democrats and pro-immigration overhaul advocates may use Russo's words as proof that the tides are changing on the issue and it's only a matter of time before Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is forced to throw his weight behind a legislative fix.
It could even be fodder for someone like Thomas Donahue, the president of the influential and right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who tried to drive the point home at an event on Monday by proclaiming that the GOP "shouldn't bother to run a candidate in 2016" if Republicans can't do anything affirmative on immigration this year.
Boehner spoke at a luncheon on Monday sponsored by several San Antonio business groups, where he reiterated his belief that most of his colleagues support an immigration overhaul but lack trust in President Barack Obama's willingness to enforce the law.
At the same time, Russo's statement could taint the ideological purity of the Tea Party Express, which has already struggled to maintain a hardline reputation and wield influence in electoral politics. Russo has been criticized for his deep ties to the Republican Party establishment while many tea party stalwarts feel defined by their status on the fringe of the mainstream.
It could also raise questions about the criteria for political endorsements, or prompt Tea Party Express-endorsed candidates to distance themselves from the group. Russo's organization is currently throwing support behind 18 GOP candidates for the House and Senate in 2014, and many of them are staunch opponents to any immigration overhaul effort in either chamber this year.
Tea Party Express-backed incumbent Jeff Sessions of Alabama is one of the loudest anti-amnesty voices in the Senate. Chris McDaniel, another endorsee who wants to unseat Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., in the upcoming GOP primary, has taken a pledge with the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform to oppose any legislation that would provide work authorization for undocumented immigrants or increase the number of legal immigrants and guest workers in the United States.
House GOP incumbents seeking re-election and backed by the Tea Party Express — Lee Terry of Nebraska, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Justin Amash and Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan — have all articulated variations of support for securing the borders and curbing illegal immigration before moving on to fix other areas of the country's immigration system, while stopping short of publicly throwing cold water on GOP leadership's immigration principles released back in January.
A source familiar with the rationale behind Russo's decision to make public his support for an overhaul told CQ Roll Call that Russo was urged to speak out by the Partnership for a New American Economy.
The coalition of "500 Republican, Democratic and independent mayors and business leaders united in making the economic case for streamlining, modernizing, and rationalizing our immigration system" will compliment the rollout of Russo's op-ed with a Wednesday afternoon conference call, the first in a monthly series of such calls focused on "the need to fix the broken immigration system."
The calls will be moderated by Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Russo will be among the first slate of guests.
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