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GOP Sends Mixed Messages on Immigration

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration’s announcement last week that stepped-up enforcement appears to be slowing illegal immigration was designed to send a message: The nation’s borders are becoming more secure and it’s time to talk about broad immigration reform.

That would appear to contradict the message coming from many Republicans on the campaign trail: The border is dangerously porous and talk of reform is premature.

But it is less of a contradiction than meets the eye. While Republican candidates are trying to hang on to their congressional majority by trumpeting the need for border security, the White House is laying the groundwork for a longer battle over immigration with an eye on capturing the Latino vote.

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Republican Party leaders have the task of balancing the party’s conflicting short-term and long-term goals on immigration.

In the short term, many if not most congressional Republicans are taking a hard-line approach. In some districts, that means denouncing proposals for a guest worker program or legalization of some immigrants as amnesty.

“What you are seeing on the House side is uniform agreement on ‘border security first,’ ” said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Where they go beyond that is up to the individual.... This is district by district. Each race is local.”

But strategists at the Republican National Committee and in the White House are concerned that some of the tough rhetoric could give voters the impression that Republicans are anti-immigrant. And that’s a long-term danger for the party, because its leaders are convinced that Latino voters are the key to turning the GOP into the country’s dominant party.

“You always have self-serving politicians who are focused on one thing -- getting elected or reelected -- and they put rhetoric ahead of what’s good for the country,” said Allen Weh, chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico, where the GOP has been battling to increase party registration.

“We’re going to have some collateral damage from this rhetoric, no doubt about it,” Weh said.

As a voter group, Latinos hold tremendous appeal for Republicans. First and foremost, they are the fastest-growing segment of the population.

Republicans also believe that despite Latinos’ traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party, they have a chance to make significant inroads by emphasizing issues other than identity politics.

For instance, party leaders think the Republicans’ socially conservative positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage will resonate with Latino Catholics, as well as with the swelling number of evangelical Protestants. Messages such as self-reliance and low taxes can be made to appeal to the many Latinos who are small-business owners.

On immigration, the party is essentially trying to send two messages at once.

“We are a nation of immigrants, and we are a nation of laws,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said this summer in a speech to a conference of Latino officials. “We must forge a new way, a solution that recognizes these two essential concepts.”

Whether a double-barreled message will resonate with voters remains to be seen. But many House Republicans aren’t willing to take chances on a long-term strategy at the expense of losing control of Congress in the short term.

“We have to solve our short-term problem before we solve our long-term problem,” said a senior Republican leadership aide, who would discuss internal party strategy only on condition of anonymity.

House Republicans are using their summer recess to hold a series of events around the country designed to drum up support for their “enforcement first” approach to immigration.

That was the central idea behind a Republican-written bill, passed last year, that raised illegal border crossing from a misdemeanor to a felony. That proposal sparked nationwide street protests by Latinos, who carried signs saying, “We Are Not Criminals.”

Democrats who are working to prevent Republican gains among Latinos say that the administration’s attempt to send two messages at once caught up with them last spring.

Joe Garcia, who works on Latino issues for the New Democrat Network, said that before the street protests the administration had been courting Latino voters while simultaneously encouraging right-wing radio hosts to beat the drums over border security, raising fears of terrorists and foreigners flooding into the country from Mexico.

“This is an issue that plays to the xenophobic base,” Garcia said. “For a long time, [the president] was able to conduct two separate campaigns. The problem is that the two of them met.”

It’s conventional wisdom in Washington that little is expected to happen on immigration legislation before the election in November, which allows candidates maximum leeway to run against whatever version of immigration reform works best in their districts.

But some GOP House leaders are weighing whether it would help candidates if they were to pass a modified immigration reform proposal before the election. Under discussion is a two-stage bill: first, border security, and second, some form of guest worker program “triggered” by certification of improvements in border security.

“We can do it in phases,” the House Republican aide said, noting the goal would be to act before the election. “I wouldn’t rule that out.”

Garcia said too much damage had been done to the Republican Party’s image among Latinos. A poll conducted recently for his group showed that support for the president and the GOP had fallen dramatically since the 2004 election.

“How do you call a certain group ‘criminals’ and then turn around and offer an olive branch?” Garcia said.

However the congressional election turns out, the long-term strategists are unlikely to give up on their goal of sending more Republican Party membership cards to Latinos.

And toward that end, they hope to move the discussion, at least incrementally, toward the next stage: Now that the borders are tight, what is to be done about the millions already here?

“I don’t expect every Hispanic to wake up tomorrow and suddenly realize he is a Republican,” Mehlman said in his speech this summer. “But I do hope we can come together as a nation to talk about immigration -- without the angry rhetoric.”


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