WASHINGTON (AP) – With President Barack Obama vowing to press ahead on immigration, prominent Hispanic Republicans are worried about the reaction of staunch conservatives. They fear it will harm the party's ability to win over Latinos in the next presidential election and beyond.
While immigration was generally a muted issue in midterm elections dominated by the GOP, Obama promised the next day to move ahead on his own to remove the threat of deportation or grant work permits to an unspecified number of immigrants living here illegally.
"The initial reaction from Republicans is going to be very ugly and not well- thought-out, unfortunately," said Alfonso Aguilar, former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration and executive director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
Aguilar said congressional Republicans must offer a plausible alternative to the president's plan, especially since the GOP-controlled House has shelved bipartisan immigration legislation. His call echoes those of some of the party's potential 2016 candidates to reach out to Hispanic voters in some way.
"Just saying 'let's repeal this,' or 'let's not fund it' — if that's the only reaction, that's going to antagonize Hispanics," Aguilar said.
But House Republican aides note that Speaker John Boehner and others have no effective way to tone down comments of members who stridently oppose looser immigration rules. Indeed, many of those members are proud to defy party leaders.
Boehner himself likened Obama's remarks to playing with matches. "He's going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path," Boehner said Thursday, a day after Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell warned the president not to act without congressional approval. Such a move, McConnell said, "poisons the well" for potential bipartisan efforts.
A Congress controlled by the GOP come January "will defend itself and our citizens from these lawless actions," said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, adding "Americans do not want their borders erased."
Aguilar and others are concerned that conservative firebrands will go further in their rhetoric, perhaps by calling for Obama's impeachment or for mass deportations — creating a political sweet spot for Democrats not long after the Republican triumph at the polls and exposing a rift inside the GOP just as the party assumes control of both chambers.
"Republicans have a knack for shooting themselves in the foot," said Carlos Gutierrez, a commerce secretary under Bush who led that administration's failed effort in 2007 to enact comprehensive immigration changes. "The Republicans can overreact and give the impression that they're not so much against the concept of executive action but that they're against immigrants. And that would be a big problem."
Some possible GOP presidential contenders, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, have signaled a desire to tackle an overhaul of the nation's immigration system next year. Others outside Washington, including Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Perry of Texas, have taken measures to appeal to Hispanics, including passing laws that allow some children of immigrants here illegally to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
And not all Republicans agree that aggressive opposition to an executive action will yield an electoral disaster. Republican consultant Mike McKenna, who conducts polls and focus groups in several states, said that unless the president's effort is modest, "he's going to sink the (Democratic) party for 2016."
Obama faces enormous pressure to act from Latinos, an important part of the Democratic base. Immigrant advocates, labor leaders and others called on the president Thursday to act boldly, and dared Republicans to stand in his way.
"If they come after him," said AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka, Democrats will say, "Look, the lunatics are already running the asylum."
Advocates say the White House is weighing actions that would apply to those who meet a certain term of U.S. residency, perhaps 10 years. Also under consideration is whether to include parents of those who received deportation deferrals under Obama, or only parents of children who are U.S. citizens because they were born here.
Hispanic voters were an important part of Obama's support in his presidential campaigns and are seen as a crucial voting bloc in the years to come. A Republican Party "autopsy" of the 2012 election made only one policy recommendation: The GOP should embrace "comprehensive immigration reform."
That phrase typically means enhancing border security along with addressing the status of the roughly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
But many House Republicans, and some senators, owe their elections largely to GOP primary voters who adamantly oppose any form of legalization.
Exit polls of voters in Tuesday's midterms found that while 57 percent of Americans favor offering immigrants living here illegally a chance to apply for legal status, the issue splits along party lines: 78 percent of Democratic voters supported providing a way for immigrants to remain in the country, while 56 percent of Republican voters said they should be deported.
Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, the worst performance for a GOP nominee in 16 years. Many Republicans attribute it to his hard-line stance on immigration.
Voters "don't care what you know until they know you really care about them," said Hector Barreto, who has advised Republican presidential campaigns since 2000. "I don't see how you go into 2016 and you brag about how great you're going to be for the Hispanic community and you never did anything on this issue."