WASHINGTON — The immigration debate is threatening to split the Republican Party, pitting those who focus mainly on presidential elections against those who care mostly about congressional races.
Strategists say that if Republicans are to win presidential elections, which they’ve been losing lately, partly because of dismal support from Hispanic voters, they must soften their rhetoric about illegal immigrants and embrace some version of immigration reform.
But granting illegal residents a path to citizenship, which critics deride as amnesty, is deeply unpopular in many House Republicans’ districts.
President Barack Obama wants such a pathway. So do some prominent GOP lawmakers who are seeking a way out of their party’s jam.
The plans differ on when and how citizenship might occur, with border security a central issue. Resolving these differences may determine whether a major law is enacted in the coming months.
Some GOP strategists fear they will lose either way.
If by the next election Latino voters think Republicans opposed and possibly blocked a comprehensive immigration overhaul, they might turn against the party in even bigger numbers.
On the other hand, converting millions of illegal Hispanic residents into citizens might produce large numbers of new voters who will lean Democratic for years.
“This is a perilous debate that Republicans have entered into,” said John Ullyot, a Republican consultant and a former Senate aide.
Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in November and 67 percent in 2008. GOP campaign professionals say Republicans are dooming themselves if they don’t show a more welcoming face to this fast-growing segment of voters.
“Republicans need to solve this issue, politically, if they wish to win national elections, and they know it,” said Texas-based GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak.
Winning House elections, however, is a different matter.
A number of Republican lawmakers and aides say amnesty for illegal immigrants triggers strong resentment among their constituents. The upcoming debates could stir passions further, even in swing districts.
Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, lost his Cincinnati-area seat to a Democrat in 2008, then regained it two years later. He opposes giving illegal immigrants an eventual route to citizenship.
“It is unfair to allow those who have willfully and intentionally broken our nation’s immigration laws to, in essence, cut in front of those who have been patiently and legally waiting their turn to become U.S. citizens,” Chabot wrote on his House blog.
Republicans should appeal to Hispanic voters “on principle,” he said, not by agreeing to liberal immigration policies. “Republicans are better for Hispanics because our policies are better for them,” Chabot said.
Republican leaders hope to minimize internal conflicts by finding a compromise that Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate will accept.
A bipartisan group of senators has proposed a plan that would allow illegal immigrants to pursue citizenship only after steps, yet to be detailed, are taken to further secure the border with Mexico. The plan is backed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose parents were born in Cuba. He is seen as leading player on immigration.