WASHINGTON -- A group of influential conservatives, seeking to reclaim momentum in the debate over immigration, is pushing Republican leaders in Congress to back a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.
In an opinion article published in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, 33 prominent conservatives argued that only a sweeping ``combination package" of legislation -- one that includes tougher border enforcement as well as new ways for immigrants to work legally in the United States -- will allow the GOP to retain its status as a party that leads on important issues.
``In many respects, the way we position ourselves on immigration will determine whether we retain the mantle of majority leadership," the article states. ``What side of history do conservatives want to be on?"
The authors of the article includes Jack Kemp, the Republicans' 1996 nominee for vice president; George P. Shultz, secretary of state under President Reagan; Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a former US ambassador to the United Nations; Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform; and Steve Forbes, a former presidential candidate.
The article was a response to the increasingly sharp attacks on a Senate-passed immigration bill, assaults that have come mostly from the right. President Bush is among those calling for a comprehensive immigration bill, but House Republicans -- who passed a bill that calls for tighter border controls -- appear ready to buck the president, prompting concerns about a possible backlash along Latino voters this fall.
Last week, House Republican leaders began holding hearings around the country to highlight what they say are flaws in the Senate bill. The Senate bill includes a ``guest worker" program for future immigrants and would allow most of the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the United States to work toward citizenship.
Critics say the Senate bill offers amnesty to border-jumpers. House leaders are describing it as the brainchild of its Democratic champions, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts -- despite the fact that prominent Republicans, including majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Senator John McCain of Arizona, supported it.
``There is a clear choice between House Republicans who want a strong bill that secures our border and strengthens enforcement, and the Democrat Reid-Kennedy bill that would weaken enforcement and make our borders less secure," House majority leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, wrote yesterday in a memo distributed to the press.
The House leaders' fierce opposition to any plan that allows citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally could result in a final bill reaching Bush's desk that only cracks down on the border.
But Bush and the conservatives who wrote the article argue that the get-tough approach won't work unless the nation reduces pressure on its borders by creating more legal pathways for immigrants to live and work in the United States.
Frist said yesterday that he still supports a comprehensive approach to immigration reform. He said there seems to be growing interest in one particular idea: implementing any new immigration reform law in phases, in which the president would have to ensure border security before implementation of any new ways for immigrants to work legally in the United States.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who contributed to the Wall Street Journal opinion article, said many conservatives felt it was important to rebut what she called the ``appalling" efforts by some Republicans to ``whip up the base" of conservative voters who are angry about porous borders.
``The idea of just enforcing borders without doing anything about the immigrants who are already here is both impractical and immoral," Furchtgott-Roth said. ``It's a moment of incredible divisiveness for the Republican Party, and people have to take the lead and put the party back on track."
But Representative Tom Tancredo, the chief proponent of a border-enforcement-only approach in Congress, said the authors of the op-ed are more interested in a cheap labor force than they are interested in preserving ``American culture."
``They don't speak for conservatives," said Tancredo, a Colorado Republican. ``The future that these people see for America and the world is completely different than the one I see and hope for. Their hope is that everyone would become Americanized."
In Miami yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators sought to shift the debate over immigration by highlighting the contributions immigrants make to the military. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, McCain, Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia and others touted statistics showing that 5 percent of the US armed forces are immigrants.
``It is an insult to their dedication to our defense when the far right in Congress makes the wrongheaded bumper-sticker claim that the solution to our immigration problems is just to build more fences and add more border patrols," Kennedy said at the hearing.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.