Immigration Reform: The Views of Local Gurus

Since news of the Bush immigration reform proposal crafted with assistance of Senators McCain, Kyl and Kennedy broke MSM pundits and conservative commentators alike have been buzzing about the terms of the deal and its affect on the 2008 presidential race. Is it the best bipartisan deal conservatives can hope for or a recipe for disaster? Will this make or break Senator McCain’s presidential prospects? HUMAN EVENTS ventured outside the Beltway to get the views of local gurus and GOP state chairmen from Maryland to California and many places in between.

How important is immigration?

Tina Benkiser says that in Texas “no matter where I go in the state the immigration issue is brought up every time.” In Iowa, Chairman Ray Hoffman answers without hesitation that it is “the #1 issue.” Dr. James Pelura, Chairman of Maryland GOP, agrees that it is “very, very important” and ranks it in the top five. Reince Priebus confirms that immigration is “definitely a hot ticket item” in Wisconsin. A chairman of a western state agrees it is a “top 5” issue and has been deluged with calls, many from listeners of talk radio who have been “pounding” the issue. Another chairman who asked not to be identified responded “Security issues, including border security, are among the most important for a significant segment of the Republican activist base.”  John J. Pitney, Jr. Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College says that in California “When two or more California Republicans get together, immigration will usually enter the conversation — and the tone will be angry.”

What does the conservative base think of the deal?  

Some state chairmen declined comment, perhaps out of deference to the Republican President. “They want to support the President on this, but need to be convinced those who’ve broken the law are not being given a pass” says one chairman. Others who did agree to speak were clear: conservatives, indeed voters in general, are not pleased. Benkiser says that Texans are “angry and disgusted.” She says that whatever the subject matter of state party communications to voters the answer comes back: “unless you secure the borders and enforce the laws we don’t want to talk to you.” Hoffman reports that “voters can’t understand why such a simple solution and an overwhelming majority” doesn’t lead to a far different proposal stressing border security. He notes that GOP headquarters has been “flooded” with angry calls. Saul Anuzis of Michigan is more circumspect, saying voters are “cautious and concerned” while Republicans (and all voters) in Maryland are “very upset” according to Pleura. Priebus also confirms that voters in Wisconsin are “not happy” and have “grave concerns” about the Senate compromise. Pitney agrees that in California “GOP activists are upset about the Senate bill.” A western state chairman says one thing is clear: the base is extremely frustrated with President Bush.

Why is there such a divide between popular opinion and voters?

Hoffman attributes it to the “the “culture of the rotunda” where politicians only talk and listen to themselves but more specifically that this is one issue where “the two ends of the spectrum wrap around and meet on the other side. It is cheap labor on the right. For Democrats it is new voters.” Priebus concurs that “a lot of politicians surround themselves with a small circle of friends.  It never ceases to amaze me how out of touch some politicians can be.” Benkiser commends her Texas congressional delegation which opposes the immigration compromise bill but says that part of the problem is that the bill emerged from secret talks “outside normal channels” and therefore did not receive scrutiny and input which would have reflected public opinion.

Will this shake up the GOP primary?

Opinion is mixed. Some like Pelura think “This is a problem for Sen. McCain. People aren’t happy and McCain’s fingerprints all over it.” He gives Tom Tancredo, Fred Thompson and Duncan Hunter good odds to impress voters with their strong border security credentials. Benkiser is clear: voters care most about immigration and out of control government spending and will make their choice for President largely on these issues. Others are skeptical it will impact McCain’s prospects. Larry J. Sabato, the leading political guru in Virginia, explains that “Given who votes in VA GOP primaries — solid conservatives — McCain wasn’t he favorite anyway.” Priebus agrees, saying that McCain had not gotten “traction” with the base in Wisconsin so the latest flap over immigration will do not make things worse. Anuzis says that he detects no adverse impact on McCain’s prospects “yet,” noting that strong anti-amnesty voters likely were not in McCain’s camp to begin with. Hoffman agrees, noting that McCain remains in “double digits’ in Iowa. Likewise, Pitney in California urges caution in writing McCain’s epitaph saying “don’t count him out.  First, the other candidates could split the anti-immigration-bill vote.  Second, the election takes place in February, and by then, other issues may be eclipsing immigration.”

What kind of deal would please conservatives?

Virtually all the state chairmen agree that their primary voters are not looking for a draconian proposal. Pelura speaks for many when he discounts any notion that we will round up millions of people, saying Americans are “not that kind of people.” Nevertheless, the message is clear: there is room to talk about accepting illegal immigrants in the country on some ongoing basis but if, and only if, the borders are secured. Anuzis notes that provisions which appear to limit the amount of border fencing are “problematic.” He explains that “People don’t believe illegals that are here should have a chance to be citizens.” While acknowledging that opinion is “more divided” on letting illegal immigrants stay on some permanent basis to work, he contends that the “first act shouldn’t be breaking the law’ on road to citizenship. In Wisconsin Priebus says “securing the border is something everyone is interested in.’ He argues that we should “enforce the laws on the books” and that it is foolhardy to enact more rules and regulations such as a large guest worker program when “the immigration department cannot enforce the laws in place now.” Benkiser acknowledges immigration is “complex” but then puts it this way: “What is not complex is: secure the border, stop the flood and enforce the laws. Then we will sit down and talk about other things.”

Will the current proposal pass?

Hoffman thinks it will get “dashed on the rocks” and says he does not think “you can infuriate that many people.” Pelura “can’t imagine it passing.” Many cited their informal polling of their state’s congressional delegation — both Democratic and Republican- and found virtually no support for the bill. Priebus feels confident that “it isn’t going to happen.” A western state chairman says “behind close door deals” usually are “DOA.”

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