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Immigration Debate Draws New Super PACs, Celebrities

Republicans who back an overhaul of immigration laws are largely starting from scratch and must play political catch-up

Major donors from both sides of the aisle are pouring big money into the campaign for an immigration overhaul, as Republicans play political catch-up and Democrats set out to leverage record Latino campaign fundraising in 2012.

A new GOP super PAC dubbed Republicans for Immigration Reform, led by former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, is drawing a wide cross-section of business donors. At the same time, Democratic Latino fundraisers who helped contribute $30 million to President Barack Obama’s re-election are organizing a new campaign to advance Hispanic electoral and policy interests.

Republicans who back an overhaul of immigration laws, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, are largely starting from scratch. Plenty of Republicans supported immigration changes in the past, including former President George W. Bush, but in recent years, the GOP’s anti-immigration wing has dominated.

“Our current focus is raising the resources to be able to have a major impact on the debate as it moves forward,” said GOP election lawyer Charles Spies, co-founder and treasurer of Republicans for Immigration Reform. “Just having a war chest will provide comfort to Republicans who want to vote their conscience and support a conservative, broad-based approach to immigration reform.”

The super PAC is drawing interest from diverse donors who are “not traditionally Republican-leaning,” Spies said, including many in the high-tech, agriculture and hospitality industries. Spies was the driving force behind the top-grossing super PAC in the 2012 elections, Restore Our Future, which, according to Political MoneyLine, spent $152.4 million on behalf of Mitt Romney.

The new super PAC’s electoral work will dovetail with a policy-focused issue campaign led by the Hispanic Leadership Network, a project of the American Action Network, a well-funded conservative advocacy group that spent $25.7 million in 2011, according to tax records. Gutierrez serves on the Hispanic Leadership Network’s advisory committee.

Democrats, for their part, have learned that Latino political influence is not just about voter turnout but about spending power, said Henry Muñoz, a San Antonio architect and Democratic rainmaker who’s helping spearhead Democrats’ Latino fundraising efforts.

Muñoz was national chairman of the Futuro Fund, the Latino donor network that raised record sums for Obama. Last month he became the first Latino elected as finance chairman at the Democratic National Committee.

Muñoz wants to translate the Futuro Fund’s success into a longer-term effort that will focus not just on immigration but also on jobs, infrastructure investments, health care and education. He’s tapping a new generation of Latino political donors in the business, media and entertainment sectors. His partners include actress Eva Longoria and Andrés Lopéz, a Puerto Rican bundler who also helped head the Futuro Fund and who is a member of the Democratic National Committee.

Muñoz and other Democratic organizers met with Latino investors during Obama’s inauguration to brainstorm how the group can translate the momentum that went into the presidential election into a long-term electoral and policy campaign. He said 150,000 Latinos donated to the Futuro Fund, debunking past impressions that Latino political power was purely a matter of getting voters to the polls.

“Until 2012, people didn’t understand that our community was also capable of investing significant dollars nationally,” Muñoz said. “My father used to tell me: ‘No peso, no say-so,’ and I think that’s probably true.”

Democratic and Republican immigration advocates are raising money from separate pots, but their allies are increasingly working together. An immigration overhaul appeals to Republicans both for business and political reasons, said Henry Cisneros, the housing secretary under former President Bill Clinton, and co-chairman of a new task force on immigration set up by the Bipartisan Policy Center. The other task force co-chairmen are ex-Bush Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Mississippi GOP Gov. Haley Barbour and ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat.

“The Republican Party doesn’t want to get pigeonholed as anti-immigration and anti-Latino,” said Cisneros, who also helped found the New America Alliance, a Latino business initiative, and the Latino Donor Collaborative, a project spearheaded by businessman Sol Trujillo that has set out to debunk myths about Latinos and boost their social, political and economic profile. “That’s not a healthy place for the Republican Party.”

Spies acknowledged that not all Republicans will back his new GOP super PAC: “I certainly have gotten some nasty emails from people.”

Indeed, intraparty disputes over immigration intensified last week, as The Washington Post reported that Republican organizers and lawmakers have mounted a whispering and public relations campaign to discredit three anti-immigration groups— the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and NumbersUSA — as having hidden environmental and zero population agendas.

Organizers for all three groups denied the allegation and said they are strictly nonpartisan.

“What is clear as the immigration debate heats up is the amount of money that’s being thrown into this debate,” FAIR Executive Director Julie Kirchner said. “It is disappointing that so many special interests are being heard on Capitol Hill, and not the voice of the American people.”

Even as Republicans settle their differences, Democrats said they welcome new GOP groups and voices in the immigration debate.

“We need comprehensive immigration reform, and it’s never too late for Republicans to come to the party,” said Manuel “Manny” Sanchez, a Chicago trial lawyer who also co-chaired the Futuro Fund.

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