On Immigration, Tea Party's Bark Is Worse Than Its Bite

Flickr/Fibonacci Blue

House Republicans' justification for opposing comprehensive immigration reform just got a lot weaker. While conservatives in the chamber have expressed support for most provisions included in the Senate Gang of Eight bill passed last month—increasing the number of visas for high-skilled workers, instituting a temporary-worker program, and dedicating more money to enforcement—the mass legalization program has been the sticking point. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee like Virginia's Bob Goodlatte and Iowa's Steve King have decried any attempt to provide a path to citizenship for the undocumented as "amnesty" that encourages lawbreaking. But the conventional political explanation for Republicans' opposition is that they fear primary challenges from the Tea Party, which strongly opposes granting citizenship to the undocumented.

But several new polls undercut that narrative. The first, from FWD.us, shows that only 20 percent of Republican primary voters oppose immigration reform. The vast majority—65 percent—favor reform that includes a path to citizenship so long as it comes with increased border security. While the level of support varies with how polling questions are worded, another poll from the American Action Network, a center-right advocacy organization, shows that even a majority of "strong Tea Party supporters" favor granting "legal status" to the undocumented if they "pass a criminal background check, pay a fine, pay current and back taxes, learn English, go to the back of the line in the application process, and are not allowed to receive any taxpayer paid benefits." That's a lot of caveats, and "legal status" is different from full citizenship, but it shows Tea Partiers are less opposed to reform than their representatives in the House.

As Molly Ball at The Atlantic points out, recent electoral history also shows conservative Republicans have little to fear. Only one Republican member of Congress has ever been ousted for holding moderate views on immigration: Utah representative Chris Cannon, who lost to immigration hard-liner Jason Chaffetz in 2008 because of his support for providing some government benefits to undocumented immigrants. Support for immigration reform also factored into the primary losses of Dick Lugar in Indiana and Bob Bennett in Utah, but both Senators were swept out of office on broader discontent with establishment Republicans in Washington; heavy campaign spending from the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative anti-tax group that backed their opponents, has been credited with their loss.

The most startling bit of evidence that Republicans are overestimating the opposition from their base comes from another poll from the American Action Network recent poll of voters in Representative Steve King's district. King is among the fiercest opponents of immigration reform in the House and is currently under fire from his Republican colleagues for saying that for every child of an undocumented immigrant who grows up to be valedictorian, "there's another 100 out there that weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they're hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert." Not only do 65 percent of general-election voters in his heavily conservative district support a path to citizenship for the undocumented, 51 percent of its Republican constituents do as well.

The disconnect between Republicans' stance on immigration and the views of their base shows just how beholden elected Republicans have become to the Tea Party, which has come to wield influence over lawmakers far out of proportion with its numbers and ability to sway elections. Part of the reason for their outsized influence is simply how vocal and visible they are. While powerful business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, the tech lobby, and the religious right have issued statement after statement expressing support for immigration reform, it is the Tea Party rallying outside the halls of Congress against "amnesty." With strong financial backing from the likes of the Koch brothers and a media machine ready to amplify their every word, they have drowned out the rest of the Republican base. 

Follow the author on Twitter @gabrielarana

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