As bipartisan immigration legislation takes shape in Congress to grant legal status to the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, a quiet civil war is raging in the Republican Party on the issue.

GOP leaders and many top party strategists are embracing the effort as a political imperative for a party smarting from its demographically driven drubbing in 2012. Meanwhile, a vocal law-and-order faction — including activists who form the backbone of the party’s electoral base — is increasingly motivated to block it, as it has done with previous attempts to revamp immigration policy.

The competing camps were on display last week at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in suburban Washington, where organizers gave prominent stage time to supporters of a broad immigration rewrite while relegating opponents to unofficial side events, neglecting even to mention them in the event’s printed schedule. Ignoring the snub, activists peddled books and DVDs with messages bashing illegal immigration and milled around the hallways lamenting what they described as the softening of their party on a core value — the opposition to “amnesty” for those here illegally.

“It’s so sad, really, that elites on both sides are just trying to stuff amnesty down our throats, and the American people want no part of it,” said J.D. Hayworth, a former GOP congressman from Arizona who is now a news commentator.

It’s the latest sign of fissures among Republicans as leaders work to recast their message and rebrand their party.

In a top-to-bottom review unveiled Monday, Republican officials said their party “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” But minutes later, the party chairman distanced himself from it.

“This is not my report,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told reporters at the National Press Club, describing the contents as simply recommendations by a five-person panel — even though he was the person who had commissioned the self-audit after the party lost the presidential election last fall.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.