WASHINGTON—Worried that the tone of the immigration debate is pushing Latinos away from the Republican Party, the White House is working with political strategists to create a broad coalition of business groups and immigrant advocates to back a plan President Bush could promote in Congress and to minority voters in the 2006 elections.
The strategists say Bush is planning to make immigration a top priority as soon as this fall, once the focus on a Supreme Court vacancy has passed. The push is being planned to coincide with next year’s campaigns for the House and Senate, in which Latino voters could be crucial in several states. It is part of a broader White House strategy to forge a long-lasting majority by drawing more minority voters.
Aiming for an air of bipartisanship, the White House-backed coalition, to be called Americans for Border and Economic Security, will be led by former U.S. Reps. Cal Dooley (D-Hanford) and Dick Armey (R-Texas). The chief organizer is one of the capital’s most important White House allies: former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who has hosted preliminary meetings at his Washington lobbying firm just blocks from the White House and has been advising the RNC on minority outreach.
Some Republican strategists worry that the more extreme voices in this camp are alienating Latino voters with anti-immigrant language, and one goal of the new coalition is to marginalize those voices. Organizers said the coalition could help the GOP avoid the kind of political damage caused in the early 1990s by the anti-immigration campaign in California backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.
The issue has presented a quandary for Bush, who backed off his earlier calls for immigration changes after conservatives rebelled. Now, the White House hopes to reinvigorate the drive for new immigration laws—but this time it wants to work in advance to ensure that the president is backed by a broad alliance of business and advocacy groups.
Holt and Armey, who as House majority leader from 1995 to 2002 unsuccessfully challenged some of his fellow conservatives to soften their opposition to immigration, said the new group’s message would seek to isolate players such as Tancredo, who leads a House caucus that backs stiff border restrictions.
Tancredo succeeded in dominating the debate, Holt and Armey said, because of an echo chamber of conservative talk radio and other advocates for limiting the influx of Mexicans across the border.
“There’s two voices right now, and the noisy one is what I call the slam-the-borders crowd,” Armey said. “The voice we want to speak with—and the one that will be in unison with President Bush—is the voice that echoes those marvelous words on the Statue of Liberty.”
“To me, the Tancredo wing appeals to the more prurient character of our nature,” Armey added. “We want to talk to the better angels of our nature.”
Tancredo accused the administration of forging an alliance with business executives who view migrants as a path to greater profits.
“They know this has nothing to do with Hispanic votes,” he said. “They’re trying to cover what their real motive is, which is to supply [business] with cheap labor, to not close the spigot of cheap labor . . . But they’ve lost in Congress. They’ve lost the public. And now they’re in damage control.”