Ralph Reed was in Iowa on Monday to address certain members of his Faith and Freedom Coalition — and to help begin the process of selecting the Republican nominee for the 2016 presidential contest.
Reed had a blunt message for a national GOP eager to make itself more marketable for the next White House contest. If Republicans retreat on abortion or gay marriage, they doom themselves to permanent minority status, he warned. “And they will richly deserve it,” he said.
But missing from Reed’s line-in-the-sand speech was the topic of illegal immigration — and for good reason. An 844-page bipartisan Senate bill, the most realistic chance at rewriting U.S. immigration law in more than two decades, was filed only a day later. Well, at 2 a.m. Wednesday.
On immigration, Reed has positioned his 4-year-old organization — an updated version of the Christian Coalition founded in the late ’80s by the Rev. Pat Robertson — as a bulwark between the Republican Party and any revolt by its unruly tea party contingent.
Call Reed a wingman in charge of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s right flank.
“We do know we’ve had an impact on the direction of this debate and discussion,” Reed said in a telephone interview. Notwithstanding a thorough review of the language, the former Georgia GOP chairman pronounced himself tentatively pleased with the bill — particularly with promises of border enforcement contained in the measure.
“These are the toughest border security and enforcement standards, not only in the last 50 years, but in all of American history,” Reed said.
An official statement from Reed’s organization termed the legislation “a good start.”
Under the legislation, which will be the topic of a pair of Senate hearings over the next two weeks, those in the U.S. without proper papers would first have to apply for a provisional legal status, pay up to $2,000 in penalties plus taxes, learn English and wait 10 years before they could seek green cards giving them legal permanent residency.
Once they have green cards, they can apply for citizenship. Those brought here illegally as children could apply for citizenship in five years.
Within the GOP coalition, immigration reform has generated more suspicion from tea party forces than evangelicals. “Legislation that will affect our security, spending, taxes, culture, education, welfare, jobs, etc. is being crafted without input,” an email from Tea Party Patriots warned this week.
Meanwhile, many religious conservatives and their institutions — specifically the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — have used Mitt Romney’s November presidential defeat as an opportunity to renew their efforts to bring an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants out of the shadows.
“There should be no room for second-class citizens in our democracy. Those who desire citizenship should be able to earn it,” Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Wednesday.
Reed created his Faith and Freedom Coalition as a bridge between evangelicals and a new tea party movement. But in this instance, old reflexes may have proved themselves superior. “This is not just an economic issue or a national security issue, it’s a moral issue because it reveals our character as a people,” Reed said.
Immigration reform also comes down to electoral math, which has always been a strong point with Reed. The GOP strategist backed President George W. Bush’s effort at rewriting the nation’s immigration laws in 2007, and he has long urged the GOP to expand its appeal beyond white voters.
Asked why he thought a 2013 version of immigration reform stood a better chance among Republicans, Reed pointed to the senator from Florida.
“We didn’t really have a legislative partner (in 2007),” Reed said. “Look at the difference Rubio has made. I’ve been talking about immigration and the need to get this right for years, but anybody in the Republican caucus in the Senate and most Democrats would tell you that without the contributions that Marco has made — on the enforcement triggers, on the visa system — that’s been huge for us.”
Another factor: Democrats have been able to rein in union efforts to oppose more visas for low-income guest workers, Reed said.
But the key to Republican acceptance of immigration reform is likely to rest on whether Reed and others will be able to convince the GOP base that, while citizenship would be placed within the reach of millions of undocumented residents, those who came here illegally wouldn’t have an advantage over those who waited their turn.
“No one who is here illegally, even after they receive their temporary resident immigrant permit — none of those people go ahead of anyone who is the child or the spouse of someone who’s here legally and is awaiting entry,” Reed said. “That’s roughly a million people. That’s really important for us.”