Six years ago, then-Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez helped craft President Bush’s immigration reform campaign only to watch it die in Congress. Last year, he led Mitt Romney’s outreach to Latinos only to watch the Republican nominee’s “self deportation” plan wreck his hard work. This time, he’s taking the issue into his own hands.
On Thursday, Gutierrez held a press conference in Washington, D.C., with a group of leading business, religious, and law enforcement officials announcing a combined effort to pressure lawmakers into backing immigration reform.
“Business, badges, and bibles,” Gutierrez told reporters. “I think all three of those groups could have done more in 2007.”
The leaders who were gathered at the event took care to stress that they expected both parties to do their part and for the White House to keep guns and budget fights from delaying reform. But lest there be any confusion over the intended audience for their own campaign, the organizers provided a nine-page packet of recent quotes from exclusively conservative politicians, activists, and pundits — everyone from Rep. Paul Ryan to Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade — expressing support for reforming immigration laws.
Gutierrez is doing more than just speaking out on the issue. He’s creating a super PAC dedicated to supporting Republican politicians willing to back a bill legalizing undocumented immigrants and reforming the immigration system. This is especially important in the House, where Republicans have been quieter on the topic, individual members are more insulated from the Latino voting bloc, and leadership has a weak hold over its caucus.
“We’re going to do something that hasn’t been done in the past: we’re going to put money behind the problem,” Gutierrez said, adding his organization will “give cover to people to come out and admit they are for immigration reform.”
Gutierrez said his fellow organizers haven’t decided whether their super PAC, Republicans for Immigration Reform, might be used on offense to target anti-immigration politicians in primaries as well.
Among the group assembled on Thursday, the plan is to appeal to Republicans with messengers that don’t set off visceral fears that reform is some kind of big government Obama takeover.
For the law and order types, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller (R) argued that Americans should demand Washington fix immigration problems rather than force lawmakers in states like Arizona to try to clean up the mess.
For the tea party skeptics, Zoeller noted that immigration and border issues were clearly assigned to the federal government by the Constitution.
For the pro-business crowd, Tom Donohue, president of the Chamber of Commerce, said his members are counting on reform to provide more visas for high-tech workers and to legalize undocumented workers whom businesses say are critical to filling low-skill jobs.
For the religious right, officials from the Southern Baptist Convention and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops cited Scripture commanding the Israelites to treat outsiders with compassion.
“You don’t have to read very far into your Bible to see how God told people to deal with the stranger in the midst of the nation that he himself established,” said Dr. Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Convention.
On the left, immigrant rights groups and unions are planning their own major pushes to help corral supporters as well, and both sides say they hope to work closely in passing a final bill. Donohue said he spoke with AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka before the press conference and that, even though their organizations disagree on issues like whether to include a guest worker program in the bill, he thought keeping interest groups unified would be the most important factor in whether reform succeeds.
“I’m not worried about if we can get the votes in the House if we can get an agreement between labor and management and faith-based people and other groups that have a business,” Donohue said. “If we can get that, we’ll get the votes.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.