A cadaverous immigration reform effort got a boost on Wednesday from an important ally: Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo.
“We need to make the 11 million people who are here illegally obey the law, pay taxes and come out of the shadows,” he wrote in an op-ed published in Roll Call. “We have to get them right by the law in exchange for legal status, but not unbridled amnesty. This should include penalties, background checks to root out criminals, and the requirement that they learn English, understand the Constitution and be committed to our basic freedoms. We must ensure there is no special pathway to citizenship that puts them in front of people who waited in line.”
As chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, Russo helps steer an influential conservative political group — and the money that follows. His organization has been one of the biggest spenders among Tea Party groups in the past year.
Immigration reform could use a helping hand. While President Obama still believes there’s a window to pass legislation over the next several months, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), has said that his party won’t vote on an immigration bill until it’s clear they can trust the president to enforce the law.
Russo certainly doesn’t speak for all Tea Party factions. In April, Judson Phillips, the founder of the fringe conservative group Tea Party Nation, laid out his opposition to immigration reform in stark terms. “If the Republicans sell us out on amnesty, it is game over for liberty in America,” he said.
By all indications, there is no consensus on immigration reform among House Republicans, either. Roll Call surveyed GOP members in March and found that more Republicans openly opposed a set of immigration principles drafted by party leadership than supported it. The principles included a path to legal status for immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed a visa.
Although the Senate passed an immigration reform bill in June, the Republican-controlled House hasn’t show any indication that it will vote on immigration legislation in the near future.
The endorsement of a prominent Tea Party leader could help keep the fading issue alive, even if Russo’s support for immigration reform isn’t new. He spoke out in favor of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) when Paul broached immigration policy back in March 2013.
"I think his goal is to appeal to a broader audience," Russo said about Paul's openness to immigration reform at the time. "Immigration is not a defining Tea Party issue like spending and debt, and there is a wide spectrum of viewpoints on it. I think it's a political winner."
This is Russo’s most outspoken stance to date. However, it’s unclear what his opinion means in the bigger landscape of Tea Party politics. The 67-year-old comes from the Republican establishment and worked as an operative on GOP political campaigns long before the Tea Party movement emerged. Similar Tea Party groups, like the grassroots organization Tea Party Patriots, oppose what they consider “amnesty.”
A survey by the Pew Research Center in February found that Republicans who aligned with the Tea Party were less supportive than other Republicans of legal status for undocumented immigrants.
That said, a majority of Tea Party Republicans — 56 percent — still said immigrants without papers should be allowed to stay in the country legally.
Russo told Fusion that the concept of immigration reform has been coopted by liberals, but that conservatives should be voicing their opinions, as well.
“We don’t like the liberal solutions to immigration reform, but the current system is broken and we should have conservative answers,” he said. “The wrong people get to come legally, some people we want don’t get to come. We have a line that doesn’t move and we provide incentives to illegal immigration. It’s a colossal mess.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.