By NICHOLAS RICCARDI, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
DENVER — Marty Lich is ready to bolt.
It's been a couple of years since the self-described conservative considered herself a Republican, but she still often votes for GOP candidates. That's partly because of their tough stands against illegal immigration, which the retired teacher's aide blames for ruining her Southern California hometown and fears could threaten the Colorado mountain community where she now lives.
But Lich and voters like her are watching with despair as more and more Republican politicians edge toward a bipartisan plan that includes a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. "If the GOP agrees on this amnesty, they're selling out their core values," Lich said. "They'd lose us. They'd lose the votes of people who support them, and they're not going to gain a lot of votes."
Demographics and election returns are pushing Republican leaders away from people like Lich. In 2007, a grass-roots rebellion led Republicans to reject then-President George W. Bush's immigration overhaul because it included a process in which otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants could eventually become U.S. citizens. Activists derided the provision as an "amnesty." After tea party groups toppled various Republicans in primaries over their dovish immigration stands, the party's rhetoric and proposals became increasingly tough.
That's changed since the drubbing the GOP took last November. Mitt Romney received underwhelming support from voters in the two fastest-growing minority groups: 27 percent of Hispanic voters and an even smaller share from Asians, according to exit polls. In contrast, George W. Bush won an estimated 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2004 re-election.
Prominent Republicans, from television commentator Sean Hannity to former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, now support legalizing the status of some undocumented immigrants. The outline of a bill to do just that was unveiled Monday by a group of eight senators, four from each party, and President Barack Obama reiterated his support for a similar overhaul Tuesday. Even in the Republican-controlled House, a half-dozen bipartisan members are nearing completion on wide-ranging legislation that would include a pathway to legalize the immigration status of those here without authorization.
It's unclear what, if any, immigration bill could pass Congress. Still, the shift in tone signals to some who favor tighter restrictions on immigration that parts of the Republican Party are ready to cave. That'd be a dangerous move, they warn, arguing that Hispanics strongly support Obama's health care law and other Democratic initiatives and are unlikely to ever back Republicans in significant numbers. They also warn that the party will squander a valuable resource by alienating its base.
"I don't know how you can even quantify the loss of enthusiasm," said former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a longtime thorn in party elders' sides for his aggressive stance on illegal immigration. "You're not going to knock on any doors, make any phone calls or give any money."
Other Republicans dismiss that worry. "Where else are they going to go?" asked Sig Rogich, a veteran Las Vegas-based Republican operative who has long pushed for a more immigrant-friendly GOP. "They'll get over it."
Immigration restriction activists – they don't like being called "anti-immigrant" or "hard-liners" – lack the organizational heft of labor unions, business organizations and religious groups, their primary opponents in this debate. Nonetheless, for years they were able to block an immigration overhaul that included some kind of legalized status.
But polls show public opinion may have turned against them. An AP-GfK poll last week found 62 percent of Americans – and 53 percent of Republicans – support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That's up 10 points and 22 points respectively from 2010.
"The economy's terrible, people are struggling and hurting. It's hard to go out and do what we were doing, at the same level, before," said Michelle Dallacroce, an Arizona-based activist who had to take down the website for her group, Mothers Against Illegal Amnesty, because donations dried up. "We're losing. We don't have a voice anymore."
Others are less worried. Rosemary Jenks, director of governmental relations for the Numbers USA, a group that favors tightening immigration restrictions, said the same popular rebellion that deadlocked Congress over Bush's immigration proposal also will stop Obama's, regardless of demographic trends and the November's election results. She noted that some Democrats, too, oppose a big bill.
"It's going to be the same Republicans on the amnesty side and the same Democrats on our side," she said.
Still, the tea party chat rooms and message boards Virginia Gomez reads are full of foreboding that some Republicans are changing their stance on the issue. "They have moved away from securing the border and standing firm," said Gomez, 67, who recently retired from a banking job in Illinois and moved to rural Utah. "They are trying to cater more to the people who are here illegally, but they are alienating people like myself, Hispanics who are born here in this country."
Michael Long, a retired Air Force employee in Colorado Springs who actively monitors the immigration debate, is resigned to the GOP cutting a deal. His antipathy for the idea is balanced by his respect for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a point man on the bipartisan agreement, and his understanding of political realities.
"The last election scared the heck out of Republicans, and the numbers aren't going to go down for the Latino vote," said Long, 50.
Jan Taylor also expects her side to lose the political battle. She worked at an American consulate in Mexico during the last major immigration deal, in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that allowed 3 million undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens. She remembers the stampede of people brandishing what she described as clearly forged papers showing they qualified for the amnesty. "It was kind of a game," she recalled.
Now, at 71, she's retired, living in Colorado Springs and dismayed the country may go down a similar road. For years, she's written to congressional and state representatives urging tougher enforcement of existing immigration laws and warning against another amnesty. She's not sure what else she can do.
"I'm only one person," Taylor said.
Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at . https://twitter.com/NickRiccardi