Some Republican fear schism over immigration

WASHINGTON (AP) — With President Barack Obama vowing to press ahead on immigration, prominent Hispanic Republicans are worried about the reaction of staunch conservatives. They fear it will harm the party’s ability to win over Latinos in the next presidential election and beyond.

While immigration was generally a muted issue in elections dominated by the Republicans, Obama promised the next day to move ahead on his own to remove the threat of deportation or grant work permits to an unspecified number of immigrants living here illegally.

“The initial reaction from Republicans is going to be very ugly and not well- thought-out, unfortunately,” said Alfonso Aguilar, former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in the George W. Bush administration and executive director of Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

Aguilar said congressional Republicans must offer a plausible alternative to the president’s plan, especially since the Republican- controlled House has shelved bipartisan immigration legislation. His call echoes those of some of the party’s potential 2016 candidates to reach out to Hispanic voters in some way.

But House Republican aides note that Speaker John Boehner and others have no effective way to tone down comments of members who stridently oppose looser immigration rules. Indeed, many of those members are proud to defy party leaders.

Boehner himself likened Obama’s remarks to playing with matches. “He’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path,” Boehner said Thursday, a day after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned the president not to act without congressional approval. Such a move, McConnell said, “poisons the well” for potential bipartisan efforts.

A Congress controlled by the Republicans come January “will defend itself and our citizens from these lawless actions,” said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions.

Aguilar and others are concerned that conservative firebrands will go further in their rhetoric, perhaps by calling for Obama’s impeachment or for mass deportations — creating a political sweet spot for Democrats not long after the Republican triumph at the polls and exposing a rift inside the party just as it assumes control of both chambers.

“Republicans have a knack for shooting themselves in the foot,” said Carlos Gutierrez, a commerce secretary under Bush who led that administration’s failed effort in 2007 to enact comprehensive immigration changes. “The Republicans can overreact and give the impression that they’re not so much against the concept of executive action but that they’re against immigrants. And that would be a big problem.”

Obama faces enormous pressure to act from Latinos, an important part of the Democratic base. Immigrant advocates, labor leaders and others called on the president Thursday to act boldly, and dared Republicans to stand in his way.

Hispanic voters were an important part of Obama’s support in his presidential campaigns and are seen as a crucial voting bloc in the years to come. A Republican Party “autopsy” of the 2012 election made only one policy recommendation: The Republicans should embrace “comprehensive immigration reform.”

That phrase typically means enhancing border security along with addressing the status of the roughly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.

But many House Republicans, and some senators, owe their elections largely to Republican primary voters who adamantly oppose any form of legalization.

Exit polls of voters in Tuesday’s elections found that while 57 percent of Americans favor offering immigrants living here illegally a chance to apply for legal status, the issue splits along party lines: 78 percent of Democratic voters supported providing a way for immigrants to remain in the country, while 56 percent of Republican voters said they should be deported.

Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote in 2012, the worst performance for a Republican nominee in 16 years. Many Republicans attribute it to his hardline stance on immigration.


Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed from Washington.


Follow Charles Babington on Twitter at — and Michael J. Mishak at —

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Some Republican fear schism over immigration
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