WASHINGTON -- Conservative Republicans are open to an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, including creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, according to a new report on voter attitudes in two states with early presidential contests.
According to a Republican research group, recent discussions with Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina indicated that conservatives are inclined to support the party’s involvement in fixing immigration and may well reward potential presidential candidates, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who have taken a prominent role in that effort.
“It’s clear that Senator Rubio’s presence in this debate creates a significant amount of goodwill among the Republican base,” concludes a memo from Ed Gillespie, a former national Republican chairman, and pollster John McLaughlin, whose firm conducted the focus-group sessions. “As one Des Moines woman said when commenting on a potential pathway to citizenship, “I’d like to see what Marco Rubio comes up with. I trust him.’”
Some prominent conservatives remain hostile to any efforts to grant legal status to the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, arguing that such moves provide a form of amnesty that rewards illegal behavior.
The focus-group findings appear in line with other recent survey research about voter attitudes on immigration, although the report merely provides an interpretation of the discussions. They were not open to monitoring by the news media, and it’s unknown if comments from the groups could have led to a different overall conclusion.
The sponsoring organization, Resurgent Republic, is a moderate conservative organization. Its most prominent members are associated with a still-evolving effort to revive the Republican Party in the aftermath of popular vote losses in five of the last six presidential elections.
“President Obama’s re-election victory, and Republicans’ shrinking support among non-white voters, is a seminal moment for conservatives,” says the four-page memo. “[I]mmigration reform should not be viewed as a one-step panacea guaranteeing Republican inroads among Hispanic voters. Yet it is a critically important step in a long-term effort.”
Securing the border as a first step in providing a pathway to legal citizenship for those already in the country was a prominent feature of the discussions with conservative Republican voters. Such “triggers” are a feature of legislation being drafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators that includes, in addition to Rubio, Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
The report says immigration reform is “not on the radar” of the Republican base, but that GOP voters believe their party should not simply leave the issue to Democrats in Congress or President Obama. They also want any immigration reform plan to include tougher security on the borders, while barring undocumented immigrants from receiving welfare or other government benefits.
“Many,” the report says, “believe undocumented immigrants unfairly benefit today from taxpayer-funded services such as education, food stamps, and health care services,” according to the report. “This was one of the most frequently repeated themes in our groups, often generating more intensity than the pathway to citizenship discussion. Republicans can make the case to base supporters that immigration reform is needed in order to help correct abuses in the system.”
In presenting alternatives to the conservative base, Republican candidates should also highlight the benefits of legal immigration and make the case that a pathway to citizenship “should be defined as a lengthy, rigid, and workable process that results in an earned status. It does not absolve wrongdoing.”
The report also notes that the phrase “pathway to citizenship” remains “largely undefined,” and that conservative Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina “did not have an immediate reaction equating the phrase to amnesty.”