With Tea Party Decline, Immigration Battle Shifts Focus

The times are certainly changing for hard-line anti-immigration activists.

Just a few years ago, spurred by the grassroots effort of Tea Party stalwarts and fears of a record number of people crossing over the country’s southern border, conservative leaders virtually killed any chance of comprehensive immigration reform. Today, thanks in large part to the waning power of the Tea Party and a massive loss of Latino votes in November’s presidential election, Republican leaders have shifted their rhetoric – putting on a friendlier face toward Hispanics and stressing a bipartisan immigration effort.

“The momentum has shifted back to the pro-immigrant side,” said Gary Freeman, a politics professor at the University of Texas. “The Tea Party went too far, they were too angry, too pejorative.”

This anger and alleged anti-immigrant sentiment turned many Latino voters against the GOP in the last election. A poll taken after the election indicated that nationwide and in battleground states President Barack Obama won Latino voter support over Republican challenger Mitt Romney by historic margins –  71 percent to 27 percent nationwide.

“The GOP knows that the future of their party relies on Latinos,” Freeman said. “They’re intimidated and know that they can’t win the Latino vote without supporting immigration reform.”

The momentum has shifted back to the pro-immigrant side...The Tea Party went too far, they were too angry, too pejorative.

— Gary Freeman, an immigration professor at the University of Texas

Since November, the GOP has worked to silence its remaining Tea Party members and actively promote instead its Latino face.

Marco Rubio, the onetime Tea Party, Hispanic star, is now the face behind the bipartisan immigration push that a group of eight senators took up in recent weeks. In a coy political move, the Republican Party chose Rubio to deliver the rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union address, where between sips of water the Florida senator hailed his version of immigration reform.

"We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally," Rubio said. "But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws."

This wave of cross-aisle participation has some immigration activists hopeful that the planned immigration reform bill will actually be passed within the time frame that has been proposed by both the president and Congress.

“The political mood has never been better,” said Muzzassar Chishti, the New York director of the Migration Policy Institute. “But this is a big ticket item and there are some considerable hurdles that need to be crossed before anything passes.”

One of those hurdles – a vestige of the Tea Party – is the idea of so-called amnesty for undocumented immigrants. While both the presidential and congressional plans propose a path to citizenship, the idea of allowing the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. a reprieve rankles many conservatives feathers, who want stricter border security and a system of accountability for immigrants.

“The issue of amnesty for illegal aliens is being used by both parties for political credit,” said Bob Dane, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “There is a different dynamic from 2007 in that today the Republican Party is working on the misguided message that amnesty will win the GOP needs Latino support.”

While the numbers suggest that Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates in last year’s election, Dane argued that the immigration reform talk is “Beltway politics” and not a legit push to actually appeal to Latinos.

Either way, the facts seems to indicate that the Tea Party fervor of 2007 has died down – if not completely – and that comprehensive immigration reform is a front and center issue to the Republican Party.

‘The election cast a specter over the Republican Party in terms of immigration,” Freeman said. “The GOP has read the writing on the wall and they know that this issue will affect the party in the long run.”