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Will Mass Deportation Advocates, Sen. Jim DeMint & Rep Steve King, Control GOP’s Immigration Agenda?

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Jim DeMint and Steve KingThe GOP presidential nomination battle is heating up. There’s a lot of politicking underway this Labor Day weekend for the candidates. As we noted in our report, Why Do Elephants Put their Heads in the Sand?, “the Party’s stance on immigration and ability to compete for Latino voters will be a major storyline.”

The immigration storyline could further develop this weekend. On the immigration issue, there’s a battle underway between the pragmatists in the GOP, led by Karl Rove, Jeb Bush, Utah’s Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, and the founder of FreedomWorks, Dick Armey. They understand that the Republican Party can’t win national elections if its leaders continue to alienate the fastest growing voting demographics: Latinos.

On the other side are the mass deportation advocates.  Two notoriously anti-immigrant leaders of that crowd, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and Iowa Representative Steve King, will be questioning the candidates at a Tea Party event in South Carolina on Monday. At The New Republic, Ed Kilgore notes that it could be a pivotal weekend for Rick Perry and his record on immigration.

It’s well known that Perry’s record and positions on immigration represent the one glaring area where he’s significantly out of step with conservative orthodoxy. He has, after all, consistently supported a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, both positions contemptuously dismissed as code for “amnesty” by many conservative activists. Worse yet, from their point of view, he signed and still defends a state version of the DREAM Act, which provides in-state tuition rates at state universities for illegal immigrants brought to this country as children. He opposes any modification of birthright citizenship. And he kept Texas off the bandwagon of states emulating Arizona’s SB 1070 law. Yes, he’s thundered a bit lately at the feds for their alleged failures in border enforcement. But by any measure, this is his Achilles heel when it comes to conservative ideological litmus tests, even if it is also a potential ace-in-the-hole in a general election, where the ability to avoid a calamitous loss among Hispanic voters could be the key to a GOP victory. Indeed, anti-immigrant demagogue Tom Tancredo published an op-ed on the eve of Perry’s announcement of his candidacy denouncing the governor’s record in terms normally reserved for Barack Obama.   

So it’s well worth noting that the co-inquisitor who will be sitting next to Jim DeMint (along with right-wing Princeton professor Robert George) at the Palmetto Freedom Forum event on Labor Day will be none other than Tancredo’s successor as Congress’ preeminent anti-immigration agitator, Representative Steve King of Iowa. King, whose views on the subject are so extreme that he was denied the chairmanship of a House subcommittee on immigration despite being its senior member, can hardly be expected to pass up an opportunity to bash Perry’s record in the forum’s one-on-one questioning format. And he may have an additional motive to highlight Perry’s heresies: His closest friend in Congress, now that Tancredo is gone, is Michele Bachmann. In fact, King has not made an endorsement in the presidential race up until now because he wanted to be able to participate in this weekend’s event. 

DeMint and King, along with Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), won’t rest until all undocumented immigrants are deported. That’s their mission. It’s an extreme point of view that conflicts with the GOP’s need to engage Latino voters. As Latino Decisions has documented, immigration is a top issue for Latino voters:

The most interesting trend from the June impreMedia/Latino Decisions (LD) poll is the personal relationship that the Latino community has with immigration policies. As reported here earlier, a majority of these voters (53%) said they know someone who is undocumented, while one-fourth (25%) said they know a person or family member who is facing deportation or who has been deported. These are striking numbers, particularly given that our sample for the poll is registered voters, who by definition are citizens of the United States. When we explore the percentage of respondents who know someone who is undocumented across key demographic indicators, factors like nativity and language use do not have any marked impact on personal experiences with undocumented immigrants. In fact, Latinos who were born in the United States and who are English speakers are more likely to know someone who has faced detention or deportation due to immigration reasons (see Figure Below) compared to Latinos who are closer to the immigration experience. We believe that this firsthand knowledge of the consequences of immigration policy has led to a significant change in the attitudes toward immigration among the Latino electorate.

The stakes are high. This weekend, we could see whether the DeMint-King wing of the party seize full control or if Perry can stand up to them.