Republican Party fears losing war of words on immigration reform

Republicans backing immigration reform are worried that rhetoric from their party’s hardliners could further damage their standing with immigrant communities, just as the GOP seeks to recover from an electoral drubbing in 2012. 

“Of course I’m worried about it. A few people give the party a reputation. They’re doing a disservice to the country and to their party,” said Carlos Gutierrez, who served as Commerce secretary under President George W. Bush and is currently working to help support immigration reform efforts.

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“They’re playing right into Democrats’ hands. If they’re not going to support [immigration reform] I hope they at least can keep quiet about it and manage their language and body language.”

Gutierrez warned that even as an increasing number of Republicans come out in favor of immigration reform — or at least temper their opposition to it — a vocal minority could undercut any progress the GOP might make with Latino and Asian voters, the two fastest-growing voting blocs in the country.

The Hispanic Leadership Network, a GOP-affiliated outside group that Gutierrez has been involved with, sought to outline a way for Republicans on both sides of the issue to talk about immigration.

The network’s list of “dos and don’ts” — sent to members of Congress on Monday — says that they should refer to people in the country illegally as “undocumented immigrants” rather than “illegals” or “aliens.” 

The group says Republicans should never use the term “amnesty” when talking about the current bipartisan immigration reform plan.

“Not enough conservatives get credit for actually wanting to solve this problem, and the reason is language,” Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, told The Hill on Tuesday. “We can show these folks that they can still be conservative on immigration reform, but just not use the harsh language we’ve seen in the past.”

Gutierrez agreed.

“If people keep trying to dismiss this as amnesty, it’s either a desire to not want to support immigration, or a lack of understanding of what immigration reform is,” he said.

“To continue to use the same excuses begs the question: What really bothers these people? What is the problem? It’s different [policy], and they continue to use the same words they used 10 years ago, and frankly, some people use the same words they used 150 years ago.”

A number of Republicans, both on Capitol Hill and on conservative talk radio, have shown a willingness to change their rhetoric on the issue since the party lost both the Asian and Latino votes by huge margins in the 2012 election.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls, and lost the Asian-American vote by an even wider margin.

Former immigration hardliners like Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) are talking about immigration in a much different way than in the past, even if they’re likely to vote against the eventual bill.

Pro-reform Republicans are also getting more political cover than they did in 2007, the last time immigration reform was seriously tackled.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Tea Party darling, is leading a push that is backed by fiercely conservative commentator Sean Hannity — a sign the landscape on the right has shifted from where it was five years ago.

But other Republican say they won’t change their approach, believing they are on the right side of the issue.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), the author of the controversial Arizona immigration law, who has helped pass similar measures in other states, ripped a bipartisan plan supported by Sens. Rubio, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

He also slammed those who want to change the way the GOP talks about immigration reform.

“One of the things Republicans have done better than Democrats is speak clearly and avoid using euphemisms. Illegal immigration is illegal immigration and amnesty is amnesty. It would be wrong for Republicans to use code words to deceive the American people,” he told The Hill on Tuesday.

Kobach promised to fight hard against the bill, and said that allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the United States would cost the government trillions of dollars.

Some prominent congressional Republicans agree.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a former head of the House Judiciary Committee who is still on its Immigration subcommittee, blasted the plan as “amnesty” soon after it was rolled out.

“This is the same plan we saw several years ago with the same individuals involved. It’s no surprise — they favored amnesty before and they favor amnesty now,” he said on Fox Business Monday night.

“This may be good for citizens of other countries, but it’s not good for American taxpayers and it’s not good for American workers.”

Comments like that could play into Democrats’ hands, some Republicans fear, allowing them to portray Republicans as obstructionist on the issue.

Alfonso Aguilar, another Republican fighting for immigration reform, said some in the party will never change their words or positions.

But he argued that having top conservatives standing up for reform would help begin the process of rehabilitating the party’s image with Asian and Latino voters.

“There is going to be some ugliness. The question for us is how to manage it,” Aguilar said. “It’s impossible to hide it. There will be fewer people doing it, I think, but we need strong conservatives to come forward, like Rubio, like Paul Ryan, like Sean Hannity.”