WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers is facing political heat for her early part in the Republican Party’s debate on immigration.
After writing in a Jan. 19 opinion piece in the Fayetteville Observer that she favored immigration reform that allowed people to gain legal work status “contingent on some combination of paying a penalty, admitting to violating the law and verifying identity,” the online commenting was largely negative. She was criticized for not putting the interests of Americans ahead of those of illegal immigrants. The Daily Caller, a conservative news and opinion website, followed with a story last week with a headline that said Ellmers wanted “conditional amnesty.”
Frank Roche, her challenger in the May GOP primary for the 2nd District seat, jumped on her remarks. Roche, a radio talk show host from Cary, has used immigration as his main line of attack.
In an interview this week, Roche said that immigration was the top issue of his campaign and “one of the No. 1 things people want to talk about on the campaign trail,” especially when he ties it to the economy and jobs.
After the uproar, Ellmers, a Republican from Dunn who has been a media magnet since her first months in Congress, shunned interviews this week while the issue was still making waves.
Ellmers’ office would only give a written statement on immigration from her communications director, Thomas Doheny.
He said she “agrees with the immigration principles laid out at last week’s Republican retreat and thinks they are a good start. She is looking forward to working with her constituents, colleagues and people on all sides of the issue to formulate legislation and communicate ideas.”
The House Republican leadership’s principles on overhauling immigration call for greater border security and more enforcement of immigration law; legal immigration that focused on college-educated workers and agricultural workers; and legal status for those who pass background checks, pay fines and back taxes, learn English and show they can support themselves without welfare, but no “path to citizenship.”
“This is an important issue in our country, it’s been kicked around forever, and it needs to be dealt with,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday.
But he also signaled that he didn’t see any concrete action soon.
In her op-ed piece, Ellmers said she had met with local leaders in housing, construction, hospitality, restaurant, research and development, high tech and agriculture, as well as immigrants, faith leaders and “reform-minded groups in the district.”
She called for immigration reform that included tighter border security.
“I do not support a ‘pathway to citizenship’ or ‘amnesty,’ ” she wrote.
Roche opposes immigration changes under consideration and calls for lower legal immigration numbers. He criticized Ellmers for becoming an ally of the Republican House leadership, calling its members “career politicians” whom “we perceive in conservative circles in the 2nd District to be part of the problem in D.C.”
“The problem for her challengers is this is a fairly expensive district to get known in,” said David Wasserman, an analyst of House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s covered by a fairly expensive media market, and at the moment, it doesn’t seem there are outside groups that have much of an appetite to take her on in the May primary.”
The two-term congresswoman also has more money to spend before the primary. Ellmers raised $204,210 in the fourth quarter and has $260,501 on hand. Roche raised $2,695 and has $1,758 on hand.
Still, Wasserman said, “she is one of the junior members who could get caught in the crosshairs of the immigration debate in the House.” David Lightman of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.
Schoof: 202-383-6004; Twitter: reneeschoof