Washington – As the Republican Party wrestles with the thorny issue of immigration, two congressman from Twin Cities suburbs embody the divisions that plague the GOP.
Republican Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen both represent swing districts that President Obama carried last year. Both represent constituencies that want to see the immigration problem solved. And both are in the cross hairs of Democrats who see immigration creating a potential wedge between national GOP leaders trying to reach out to new Hispanic voters and the party’s traditional grass-roots base.
Democratic strategists — who have been polling aggressively and running Spanish-language ads against Kline and Paulsen — put the two in the “persuadable” camp; not because of anything they’ve said, but because of the evolving public opinion in their centrist-leaning districts.
Neither congressman has endorsed a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who live in the U.S. illegally. But both say they are willing to explore ways to legalize the status of those who are contributing members of American society.
“Certainly, we need to look at a way to take them from an illegal status to a legal status,” Kline told the Star Tribune. “How that’s done, and if that’s citizenship or not, there’s still a lot of discussion and a lot of debate.”
Paulsen, too, is treading cautiously, mindful of the harsh rhetoric on immigration that has caused problems for Republicans nationally.
“On a political level, I think our party has mismanaged the issue for decades,” Paulsen said in an interview. “Our party is on the wrong side politically unless changes are made.”
But Paulsen, like Kline, is not prepared to embrace the path to citizenship spelled out in bipartisan Senate legislation backed by GOP rising star Marco Rubio of Florida.
“Today, I’m not prepared to go that far on the citizenship question,” Paulsen said. At the same time, Paulsen is steering clear of the nativist streak in the Republican Party represented by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who argues that illegal immigrants are taking jobs, consuming benefits and depressing wages for Americans.
Bachmann led a Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill and called in to a conservative talk show program recently to denounce the Senate bill as a sham. “Build me the fence!” Bachmann said. “Where’s my fence that I paid for in 2006? Give me my fence or give me my money back.”
While Bachmann is seen as a hard-liner on illegal immigration, her emphasis on border security is currently the consensus position in the GOP-led House. Kline, who is close to House Speaker John Boehner, has endorsed the Ohio Republican’s piecemeal approach to immigration reform, saying border security has to come first.
“You can’t address those people who are here unlawfully until you have that credibility at the border,” Kline said.
Border crossings are down and deportations are up. But many House Republicans express skepticism about the Obama administration’s commitment to border security, warning against a repeat of the 1986 law signed by President Ronald Reagan that granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants.
But immigration reform advocates say a comprehensive approach is the only way to get the political alliances needed to fix the current immigration system. They note that the 68-32 vote in the Senate last month was possible only because it linked a path to citizenship to beefed-up border security.
Calls for compromise have come not only from Bush administration figures like strategist Karl Rove, who has warned against the electoral consequences of alienating Hispanic voters. They also have come from business interests like Minnesota’s Cargill Inc. and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which signed a letter to House members last week calling for “comprehensive immigration reform” that includes a pathway to legal status or citizenship and border security enhancements.
The business appeal resonates with Paulsen, who calls immigration an economic issue. “We ought to recognize that a lot of people who are here, a lot of them who are here illegally, are contributing to the economy,” he said.
But that hasn’t been an easy sell inside the House Republican caucus, which met behind closed doors last week to discuss immigration politics. “Clearly, this is something where there is no consensus within our conference, and it’s going to take some time to work it out,” Paulsen said.
The pressure has come from all sides. Last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee bought Spanish-language radio ads targeting Kline and Paulsen, who joined all but six House Republicans in voting for a GOP measure to restart deportations of illegal immigrants who were brought into the country as children.
The negligible numbers of suburban voters who speak Spanish only suggests a theatrical quality to the ad buy, which was minimal. But Democrats say more Americans align with them on immigration reform.
The Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling surveyed seven potential swing districts, including Kline’s, and found that their Republican incumbents could face a potential backlash if they oppose immigration reform.
In Kline’s district, 44 percent of poll participants said they would be less likely to support him if he opposed comprehensive reform. Only 19 percent said a vote against immigration reform would make them more likely to support Kline.
“This is obviously a vexing issue for Republicans,” said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, a Democratic-aligned group.
But Kline disputes the pollsters’ findings. “I think what my constituents and people around the country want is to fix the system,” he said. “I actually don’t know any Republican or Democrat who says that the current system is a good system.”
What remains to be seen is whether GOP lawmakers can devise any system of penalties that would keep a path to citizenship something apart from amnesty, which remains abhorrent to the Republican base.
“I haven’t categorically, hold-my-breath-till-I-turn-blue said that won’t happen,” Kline said, “but I do think that there is a way that you can change their [legal] status that will be acceptable to the vast majority of the people in the Second District of Minnesota.”
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter @StribDiaz.