In immigration debate, new push for citizenship

Peter Wallsten / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — A growing number of conservatives are softening their views on immigration in the wake of President Barack Obama’s dominating performance among Hispanic voters, giving new momentum to a yearslong push by advocates to legalize millions of illegal immigrants.

Yet even as officials in both parties pledged to make overhauling immigration a top goal in the coming months, it has become clear the issue remains thorny for each side.

House Speaker John Boehner was criticized by some in his party for a Thursday interview in which he endorsed passing a “comprehensive” plan, adopting the language of immigrant advocates pushing for citizenship. By the time Boehner faced reporters for a Friday news conference, his remarks were more tepid, focusing primarily on the border-security theme that is more comfortable terrain for Republicans.

“I’m not talking about a 3,000-page bill,” he said. “What I’m talking about is a common sense, step-by-step approach (that) would secure our borders, allow us to enforce the laws and fix a broken immigration system.” Pressed on whether he would ever support giving illegal immigrants the chance to be citizens, the speaker demurred: “I’m not going to get into any of the details of how you would get there. It’s just time to get the job done.”

The issue promises to also be complicated for Obama and his fellow Democrats, who will face unprecedented pressure from a newly empowered political base to secure a complete victory, citizenship path and all.

Hispanic leaders decided to support Obama’s re-election despite what they considered his broken 2008 campaign pledge to push immigration in his first term, but now several major organizations are planning an extensive grass-roots push next year to pressure White House officials.

“They understand they can’t make that promise twice in a lifetime,” said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which spent millions recruiting new Hispanic voters this year. “For the White House and the Democrats, we don’t want to hear any more, ‘We’re with you but (the Republicans) won’t let me.’ That ain’t good enough anymore.”

Change of heart?

The sudden burst of activity on the right and left reflects what activists describe as a sea change in the push for immigration legislation, which has been stymied since conservatives thwarted efforts by President George W. Bush to pursue an overhaul following his 2004 re-election.

Unlike then, activists said Friday, many conservatives now see the danger of alienating Hispanic voters. And, in contrast to the Bush strategy, which focused on backroom negotiations on Capitol Hill, advocates have decided their best hope now is to apply outside pressure on skittish politicians in both parties.

Supporters of a new law were thrilled Friday with the news that two prominent conservative thinkers, talk show host Sean Hannity and columnist Charles Krauthammer, both reported changing their minds to now support legalizing illegal immigrants.

“Border fence plus amnesty. Yes, amnesty,” Krauthammer wrote, citing the word long used by conservative opponents of a path to citizenship. ”

The post-election discussion on the right reflects a more fundamental shift that has been happening for months among several core Republican constituencies, with a growing number of evangelical leaders, business executives and law enforcement officials expressing support for legalizing immigrants.

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