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Conservatives Urged To Rethink Immigration Changes

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While the Arizona immigration law is sparking lawsuits and controversy across the country, an important conversation is beginning inside conservative Republican circles. The topic is whether to move away from staunch opposition to legislation that offers a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Some prominent conservatives are speaking out in favor of the kind of comprehensive immigration bill that many Republicans oppose -- one that would include border security and then a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

As a leading evangelical conservative, Richard Land's credentials are impeccable. He heads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, and from that influential perch he's been urging his fellow conservatives to rethink their opposition to the immigration overhaul.

"I've had some of them appeal to me. They say, 'Richard, you're going to divide the conservative coalition.' And I said, 'Well, I may divide the old conservative coalition, but I'm not going to divide the new one.' "

Land adds, "If the new conservative coalition is going to be a governing coalition, it's going to have to have a significant number of Hispanics in it, that's dictated by demographics, and you don't get large numbers of Hispanics to support you when you're engaged in anti-Hispanic immigration rhetoric."

Last week, when President Obama gave his speech on immigration, Land was in the audience. In fact, he had urged the president to make the speech. Obama called on both parties to rise above petty politics to fix the country's broken immigration system.

Land says that will be very hard because, for both parties, there's a short-term political advantage to doing nothing.

"Democrats, because it scares Hispanics, who can vote, into voting for them, and they can convince them that the Republicans are anti-Hispanic. And Republicans, because they look at these polls that show that 70 percent of Americans support the Arizona law, and they say, 'You know, we can win with this in November.' And my argument is: Politicians think about the next election; statesmen think about the next generation."

But even if Republicans are thinking only of the next election, or the next few elections, Land says, the lessons of history should compel them to think again.

"The people who have been anti-immigration have lost every one of these arguments," he says. "They lost it with the Irish in the 1830s and '40s and turned them into Democrats for three generations. They lost it with the Italians in the 1890s and the early part of the 20th century and turned the Italians into Democrats for three generations. I mean, you know, do they want to do it with the Hispanics too?"

Arizona state Sen. Jonathan Paton, one of the Republicans running for Congress in the 8th district, voted for the immigration law in the state legislature. He says he's more concerned with the survival of his state than the survival of the Republican party.

As for the federal government, he says, "We're not asking for more laws -- we're asking for them to enforce the laws they already have, and to take that seriously."

He says people who are in the U.S. illegally "absolutely" should be arrested and deported. And if he's elected to the U.S. Congress, Payton says, he knows how he will vote on immigration: "I can't vote for anything that would give a path of citizenship for those who would come into the country illegally."

Despite the arguments of conservatives like Richard Land or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, that is the bottom line for most Republicans in Congress, says Texas Sen. John Cornyn.

"That's what causes so much heartburn on the right," Cornyn says. "Because that is viewed as tantamount to amnesty, which is of course a radioactive term."

Cornyn, who says 30 percent of his constituents are Hispanic, represents what could be called the middle of the internal Republican debate on immigration. He says he too is for comprehensive immigration legislation -- he just doesn't want it to include a pathway to citizenship. He's intrigued by the idea of other forms of legalization -- maybe a permanent green card for undocumented workers, who pay a fine or plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

"It wouldn't satisfy the left because they want these folks to be on a path to citizenship," Cornyn says. "They'd obviously like them to register to vote, and they'd like to gain the electoral advantage by adding them to their column. I think it would be one way to try to thread the needle."

But before Cornyn gets a chance to test his theory about the motives of his Democratic opponents, he and other Republicans will have to resolve their own debate about immigration, and what they want to happen after the border is secured: deportation, legalization or citizenship.

That's a debate that will take several years to resolve, and right now it's being obscured by the legal drama of the United States v. Arizona. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit