After the sterling conservative voting record he has established during three years in Washington, Representative Mick Mulvaney, a Republican, can take a few political risks in his South Carolina district, one of the most conservative in this reliably Republican state. This week he did just that.
Mr. Mulvaney convened a town-hall meeting in this country town on the troublesome issue of immigration, with an audience of Latinos. He held forth for an hour, parsing policy and answering questions about the prospects for immigration legislation in the House—entirely in Spanish.
Even more surprising to the spellbound crowd at the First Baptist Church, Mr. Mulvaney said he and other conservative House Republicans were open to some kind of legal status, although not a path to citizenship, for many immigrants living in the country illegally.
But he also said it would not happen this year: Republicans just do not trust President Obama to carry out any law they might enact.
“We are afraid that if we reach an agreement,” the congressman said, making the most of the Spanish skills he acquired years ago in college, “he will take the parts he likes and he won’t take the parts that he doesn’t like.”
But Mr. Mulvaney first rode to office on the Tea Party wave in 2010, ousting a long-serving Democrat, and he knows his voters. If he moves too far too fast, he could awaken their ire.
“If Mick Mulvaney would come out tomorrow to do immigration reform, somebody from the Tea Party would challenge him,” said Karen Martin, a founder of the Tea Party group in Spartanburg, on the edge of Mr. Mulvaney’s district.
Ms. Martin said she campaigned for Mr. Mulvaney during his first race and keeps a vigilant eye on his work in Washington. She said she and many other South Carolina voters feared an influx of newly legalized immigrants into the state’s lagging labor market.
The mixed mood in South Carolina was reflected in recent start-and-stop politics on Capitol Hill. Last month, House Republican leaders presented their principles for reform, with a series of measures to toughen enforcement and border security and then to allow illegal immigrants to “get right with the law.” While some Republicans flatly rejected legalization, many others said the principles might be right but the timing was wrong. Within days, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said it was unlikely the House would move on immigration this year.
Mr. Mulvaney, a former state senator who had not focused particularly on immigration until he won federal office, is picking a careful course through that minefield. The principles were “an important first step,” he said in an interview (in English).
“I am more than willing to have a discussion about allowing at least part of the 11 million people here illegally to have some type of status,” he said. “I’m just disappointed that more people in my party don’t want to do that.”
But pressure for immigration reform is increasing from several sides. The town of Gaffney is well known to drivers on Route 85, the main thoroughfare through the region, because of a giant peach that towers over the highway—an unsubtle reminder that Georgia is not the only state growing that fruit.
Growers, farmers, manufacturers and hotelkeepers are becoming more outspoken with Mr. Mulvaney about their urgent need for legal immigrant workers for low-wage jobs.
Evangelical Christian clergy members have also called for action, including the Hispanic pastors who brought busloads of parishioners to the town hall. Mr. Mulvaney was impressed, saying the meeting was among the most well-attended of some 40 he has held.
“We are not insignificant,” said Victor Prieto, a Southern Baptist minister and university professor, noting the surge in Hispanic population in the area in the last decade.
Ms. Martin, the Tea Party organizer, said she was certain Mr. Mulvaney would not risk provoking her organization’s wrath by pushing an overhaul anytime soon.
“Mick Mulvaney is just not going to come out for immigration reform,” she said matter-of-factly. “He is not going to push for something people in his district see as a threat.”