POLITICS

Ed Gillespie: Republican Voters Resigned To Immigration Reform

03/28/2013 12:00 am ET

WASHINGTON -- Immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants may not be the bogeyman many Republicans think it is, GOP strategist Ed Gillespie and pollster John McLaughlin said Wednesday, based on focus groups with conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina.

Resurgent Republic, a GOP group led by Gillespie, released information on Thursday from focus groups conducted earlier this month in Greenville, S.C., and Des Moines, Iowa. In Des Moines, they talked to self-identified conservatives who caucused last year. In Greenville, they spoke to Republicans who voted in the past two GOP primaries.

Republican voters in the group seemed open to learning more about immigration policy. When they hear the concept of a pathway to citizenship explained, they don't necessarily oppose it. And if immigration reform is going to happen, they would rather it be under the leadership of fellow conservatives such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), than President Barack Obama.

"The instinctive resistance to immigration reform amongst Republican primary voters seems like it may be giving way to an instinctive resignedness to it," Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and counselor to President George W. Bush, told reporters in a briefing.

For one thing, many Republicans outside the Beltway don't know what a pathway to citizenship is, much less whether they support or oppose it, according to McLaughlin and Gillespie. "When you bring up the phrase 'pathway to citizenship,' they don't know what it means," McLaughlin said. "There's no reaction."

In both focus groups, the Republicans didn't seem to disagree with broad proposals that have been put forward in Congress, including allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States and eventually become citizens. Such a measure will be included in the bill to be proposed next month by the so-called "gang of eight" in the Senate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said last week he would support allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens eventually.

But Paul balked at the term "pathway to citizenship," saying it was unhelpful and amounted to "amnesty" to many people. Among Republicans in politics, that might be true -- a number of GOP members of Congress have said so -- but among voters, the phrasing isn't so important, according to McLaughlin and Gillespie's findings.

Gillespie said he would like to do more focus groups and ask people what they consider amnesty, since the label is so often bounced around. His suspicion is "they wouldn't describe this," he said. That means Republicans would have to educate the public, since there's no quick phrase that explains their position.

"That would be good to find that word, and would be helpful," Gillespie said. "It may not be doable. It may be that sometimes you do have to beat the bumper sticker with the one-pager, and that may be the case here."

When the pollsters laid out more information, voters were receptive to what would be considered a pathway to citizenship, McLaughlin said. They asked members of the focus groups to choose one of two statements on immigration that best matched their views. The first was the more restrictionist take; the second was along the lines of the gang of eight plan. McLaughlin said all but one person said they preferred the second.

Immigration: Statement 1

A Republican candidate who believes offering citizenship to illegal immigrants is amnesty, regardless of the conditions attached. This candidate supports deporting all illegal immigrants because they are a drain on our nation, our hospitals, our school system, and our tax dollars. Further, by simply being here illegally, they are already breaking the law, and therefore should be deported. Enforcing the laws sends a clear message to others thinking about coming to the United States illegally and it is the only way to stop illegal immigration.

Immigration: Statement 2

A Republican candidate who believes the immigration system is broken and reforms are needed that respect the rule of law and grow the economy. The solution is not easy. It's not practical for the federal government to break up families and deport every undocumented immigrant. The first priority should be to secure the border. Once that is accomplished, undocumented immigrants should be allowed to earn citizenship if they pass a criminal background check, pay a fine, pay current and back taxes, learn English and go to the back of the line, a process that will take 10 years.

McLaughlin said the word "impractical" seemed to come up frequently when discussing deportation as the only solution to dealing with 11 million undocumented immigrants, along with concerns over splitting up families. So long as certain requirements were met, including border security, most members of the focus groups said they did not view an eventual pathway to citizenship as amnesty. In fact, some remarked after choosing between the two statements that a 10-year process sounded overly long, he said. "Why not sooner?" on person asked, according to McLaughlin.

Their findings on Republicans, although narrow, seem to align with polling. A survey released last week from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 53 percent of Republicans supported the concept of a pathway to citizenship.

McLaughlin and Gillespie said the politicians who back immigration reform will be key. In Iowa, focus group members repeatedly brought up Rubio, a member of the gang of eight. His participation and that of other conservatives will help the process, Gillespie said.

"I don't know that they drive conservative interest so much as they provide reassurance," Gillespie said. "They provide people with, 'Maybe we should take another look at this?'"

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