Commentary

Christensen: Republicans might try new approach on immigration

rchristensen@newsobserver.comNovember 16, 2013 

Farmers such as John Barnes need Latino laborers to harvest the sweet potato crop in Nash County. High-tech entrepreneurs such as SAS’ Jim Goodnight of Cary rely on a supply of American-educated software engineers and statisticians from South Asia.

This is called supply and demand. If there were native-born Americans lined up for those jobs, they could be hired.

Similar stories could be told in the construction and hospitality industries.

All the liberal activists in the world praying and fasting on the National Mall – as they did last week – are unlikely to have much of an effect on the Republican-controlled U.S. House when it comes to changes in the immigration laws.

But businessmen, lawmen and evangelical preachers might.

“Seventy-percent of the labor force in agriculture is undocumented,” Bert Lemkes, co-owner of Van Wingerden International, a greenhouse manufacturer in Western North Carolina, said at a forum in Raleigh recently.

“Something has to be done,” Lemkes said. “The other 30 percent will lose their jobs if the other 70 percent does not show up. There is a large group in the population that does not understand that the undocumented here work hard, pay taxes, pay (into) Social Security.”

The forum was sponsored by the N.C. Farm Bureau and a group called Bibles, Badges and Business, a coalition that brings together business, law enforcement and evangelical leaders to push Republicans for changes in the immigration laws.

Some of those groups were recently in Washington, lobbying GOP members of Congress such as Reps. Renee Ellmers of Dunn and George Holding of Raleigh, urging them to act. The greater Triangle area is ground zero in this Republican debate – a mixture of agribusiness, high-tech companies, a substantial Latino community and two fairly conservative GOP lawmakers.

This summer, the Democratic-controlled Senate passed, with bipartisan support, an immigration bill that provides for a lengthy path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants.

But such legislation is a harder sell in the Republican-controlled House, where some lawmakers see any concessions as “amnesty” and harmful to job-seeking Americans.

Immigration underscores the fault lines in the GOP – between conservative populists, many of whom are party activists, and more business-oriented Republicans, many of whom are the party’s financial backers.

Chris Sinclair, a GOP consultant in Raleigh, said there are not only economic consequences for the country if immigration reform is kicked down the road. But there are political consequences for the Republican Party.

Latinos have now surpassed African-Americans as the nation’s largest minority group. And Republican leaders say they must make an effort to appeal to such a large group of voters, if they are going to remain relevant in the future.

“We have to go into the Latino community and talk to them,” Sinclair said. “If we do not, we are going to pay the price as Republicans. We have to stop listening to the extremes of our parties. We have open that door up to people who might be with us on some of the issues.”

Although North Carolina does not have as large a Latino population as some other states – 8.7 percent of the Tar Heel population is Latino, compared with the national average of 16.9 percent – it has one of the fastest-growing ones.

A new poll of 12 key battleground states, including North Carolina, suggests that attitudes toward immigration may be softening. The poll was commissioned by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a business coalition headed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Republicans for Immigration Reform and Compete America.

The poll found that 74 percent of North Carolina voters support an immigration reform plan that would provide undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship if they pay a penalty, learn English, pass a criminal background check, pay taxes, and wait a minimum of 13 years before they can be eligible for citizenship. Nineteen percent oppose such a plan.

Seventy-four percent said it was important that Congress enact immigration reform this year. Fifty percent said they would be more likely to vote for an elected official who supports immigration reform, while 17 percent said they would be less likely, and 33 percent said they were not sure.

The automated poll of 500 North Carolina voters, conducted Oct. 20-21 by Harper Polling, a Republican firm in Harrisburg, Pa., had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

But the issue is a difficult one for Republican House members. While GOP lawmakers understand both the practical issues (businesses’ need for workers) and the politics (the need for Republicans to reach out to the nation’s largest minority), it doesn’t look that way in their own districts.

Because of redistricting, most Republican House members represent districts that have few Hispanic voters. But they do have to worry about their right flank in GOP primaries.

That’s why if there is any movement on the immigration issue in the House, it is likely to come after next spring’s primaries. And it is more likely to come in piecemeal changes in the law, rather than in any overall comprehensive reform legislation.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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