Immigration splits Tea Party lawmakers

The bipartisan effort to pass immigration legislation has driven a wedge through the heart of the Tea Party — with some of the GOP’s staunchest advocates and fiercest opponents of reform hailing from the insurgent movement. 

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On one side, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): A Tea Party hero who was one of the movement's early success stories, Rubio is leading efforts to sell the bill to the GOP's conservative wing. 

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), three other Tea Party favorites, have also been closely involved in the bipartisan negotiations.



But others closely aligned with the Tea Party movement have come out — hard — against the bipartisan framework. 

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), a member of the House Tea Party Caucus, ripped a bipartisan Senate plan as "amnesty" shortly after a “gang of eight” GOP and Democratic lawmakers unveiled it this week.  Smith attack the plan as a potential drain on the economy and threat to border security. 

Erick Erickson, the influential head of the Tea Party website RedState.com, also blasted the proposal.

Other members of the House Tea Party Caucus, including cofounding Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Steve King (R-Iowa), also remain hardliners on the issue.


Ali Akbar, a Republican strategist with close ties to the Tea Party movement, said he thinks that the movement’s rank-and-file is just starting to come to seriously analyze the proposal. Akbar said he personally hoped he could back new legislation as it emerged.

“I think you’ll see a new way of how activists and leaders treat this. I don’t expect a big anti-immigration rally in front of the Capitol — whether Michele Bachmann calls one or not,” he said.

Akbar said that grassroots activists are still waiting for more details, and would likely accept any plan that House conservatives who have been involved in the private deliberations support. 

He singled out Labrador, Ryan, and Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) as members with strong standing within the movement, who could swing Tea Party grassroots one way or the other. 

“There’s going to be a little resistance and there will be people who won’t come along,” he said. “But you won’t see the mobilization you saw in 2007 (against immigration reform) and it’s certainly not going to come from the core Tea Party groups.”

He added: “And as they come to learn more about the policy, and House folks are briefing the Tea Party leaders, folks will come aboard.”

Erickson’s blog post against the proposal — and Rubio’s response — underscored the internal tensions within the movement on the issue.

“I don’t like Marco Rubio’s plan. There, I said it,” Erickson wrote before saying he’d struggled long and hard about coming out against the proposal because of Rubio’s support.

“The GOP was smart to put Marco Rubio as the face of the plan because many of us like him personally, support him still, and consequently don’t want to seem critical. 

But the plan makes the actual problem of immigration more difficult to solve,” he continued.

Erickson said the plan was “clearly written by a group of men who seemingly love government, but do not love free markets, small businesses, or individuals.”

Rubio, who has hit nearly every conservative media outlet to explain his support for the plan, argued in a response that immigration reform is politically necessary for the GOP.  

That’s because the immigration debate has impaired the conservative movement’s “ability to convince these fast-growing communities that the principles of limited government and free enterprise are better for them than big government and collectivism,” he wrote on RedState.com. 

Rubio stressed the negative economic ramifications of maintaining the current system, before addressing Erickson’s specific concerns with the Senate plan.

One new argument from conservatives against immigration reform seems tailored directly to Tea Party audiences: That if undocumented immigrants are allowed to as permanent residents or citizens, it will drive up the federal debt and be a drag on the economy.

Smith, a member of the House Tea Party Caucus and a prominent border hawk, argued as much earlier this week.

“My real concern with this plan is quite frankly it's going to cost taxpayers millions of dollars because they're going to have to foot the bill for government benefits going to these individuals,” he said.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), who authored the controversial Arizona immigration law, laid out a similar argument.

“I really believe the biggest barrier for this bill is going to be the price tag,” he told The Hill. 

“In 2007, the amnesty then was calculated to be a $2.6 trillion net cost, as you make illegal aliens eligible for welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. That was $2.6 trillion over 10 years — and that was before ObamaCare,” Kobach said. “If Congress really cares about the fiscal gap, why would we widen it further at this time when our nation's fiscal house is not in order? The number this year will be even bigger.”

Rubio spokesman Alex Conant disagrees.

“The bipartisan Senate principles explicitly state that illegal immigrants who are given legal status will not qualify for any federal benefits, including ObamaCare. The White House conceded that point in the principles they released on Tuesday,” Conant told The Hill. “This debate is over: No benefits for illegals.”

Labrador, another Tea Party favorite who has been closely involved in seeking bipartisan solutions on the issue, told The Hill recently that he saw part of his role in the debate as reaching out to other Tea Party members. 

“Politically, some of the more moderate members use immigration as the only issue they can be conservative on, and I just think that's not good policy,” he said. 

“I went through this in my primary and general [election] in Idaho. Some groups were accusing me of not being conservative enough, and I asked them if they believed being conservative is wanting to reform government and make it accountable, and fix a government that isn't working. And when I explained it that way — argued for more efficient, accountable, and transparent government — a lot of them came around.”

Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist with ties to the Tea Party who has also long advocated immigration reform, warned that anti-reform voices could find resonance by tying the issue to the federal debt.

“As soon as you say, ‘You’re going to put more on the credit card,’ that’s a top issue for them … The fiscal aspect is huge for a lot of these activists and House members,” he said.

But O’Connell believes his side has the right messengers — and that so far they’re using the right message

“Finding that right balance to convince people this won’t be an economic loss or drag on the economy long-term is going to be key,” he said. 

“As long as the Labradors and Rubios keep hitting the right notes on the humanitarian, border security and economic issues, it’s going to be easier to ignore the hardliners on this.”