Conservatives: Public backlash to immigration reform is coming

Opponents of the Senate immigration reform bill say a strong public backlash is coming and think they have a good chance of stopping it on the Senate floor.

Advocates on both sides of the debate agree the response to the bill, especially from conservatives, has been muted so far. They attribute the relative tranquility with which the legislation moved through the Judiciary Committee to several factors.

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Conservative talk-show hosts who stoked intense opposition to comprehensive immigration reform in 2007 have discussed it less this year. And conservatives have been focused on other issues, such as the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party groups, and the administration’s handling of the attacks on Benghazi.

“I think opposition is going to escalate dramatically once the bill hits the floor in a way that people do not expect. People are working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that happens,” said an aide to a conservative Republican senator.

“There’s no question that it’s going to be significantly more pushback. The question is if it’s enough to stop the bill in the Senate. I’d say the odds are better than even,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

He says conservatives have been distracted by the controversies swirling around the IRS, Benghazi and the Department of Justice’s seizure of journalists’ phone records.

“There are so many scandals going on with the Obama administration that it’s distracting a lot of people. The outrage can only be focused in so many directions,” he said.

Pro-immigrant advocates say lawmakers have heard more from them and their allies than from the opponents of the bill.

“Our goal is to try to not let what happened in 2007, where the anti-immigrant [groups] really beat the pro-immigrant folks in contacting members of Congress,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Instead of doing the big marches like we did, the focus has been on actually contacting Congress and that’s way out there. We ourselves delivered well over 25,000 contacts.”

Six years ago, a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill stalled on the Senate floor amid an overwhelming public backlash. Most of the criticism came from the constituents of Republican and centrist Democratic senators.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who helped negotiate the 2007 bill, which was more conservative than this year’s version of comprehensive reform, reported receiving 700 to 1,000 calls a day when the bill hit the floor six years ago. Cornyn estimated that 80 percent to 90 percent of those calls were in opposition to the bill.

Sen. Claire McCaskill’s (D-Mo.) office was swamped with calls during the 2007 floor debate. She described the response at the time as “adamantly opposed” to the legislation.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring the Senate immigration bill to the floor in June.

Wilkes says pro-immigrant groups have had a bigger presence on Capitol Hill than opponents in recent weeks.

“The contacts to Congress have been trending in our direction two to one. Last time we were being beat ten to one so that’s an interesting turnaround,” he said.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a non-partisan group that opposes increased immigration flows, says his membership has grown from 300,000 to 2 million people since the 2007 debate.

He said the public pushback against the bill will be as intense as it was six years.

“I think what’s different is talk radio may not be as worked up and that’s partly because they’re so distracted by all of these scandals,” he said. “I think you’ll see talk radio focusing a lot more starting next week.

“We sure feel like our grassroots mobilization is going pretty well, better than it was in 2007, in our own organization,” he added.

Activists opposed to the Senate immigration reform bill held press conferences around the country on May 21, as part of the “Remember 1986” coalition but it received little attention in Washington.

A proponent of the Senate bill characterized the conservatives’ day of mobilization as a fizzle, contrasting it to crowded public demonstrations in support of the comprehensive reform.

“That wasn’t really a day of mobilization, that was just a lot of local grassroots groups that wanted to have press conferences. It wasn’t organized nationally,” said Beck.

The groups holding the press events delivered petitions circulated by NumbersUSA.

“Six years ago, seven years ago, the energy seemed to be on the other side, the other side was extremely organized. This time around the pro-immigrant people are very well organized,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

More than 2,000 people showed up at an interfaith meeting on immigration reform that Reid attended Wednesday at St. Therese Church of the Little Flower in Reno, Nev.

About a month ago, pro-immigrant groups held a march in Las Vegas that drew nearly 5000 people.