Immigration reform pitch morphs Tea Party protests

Acknowledging ‘overlap,’ Tea Party forces add anti-amnesty thrust. Tall order perhaps, but suddenly Tea Parties have respect.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
On Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called for comprehensive immigration reform. "Tea Party" activists have taken that as a rallying cry.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s call for immigration reform legislation is a moment of truth for a major campaign promise from President Obama: A “tough but fair” road to legalization. It also raises the curtain on a likely legislative battle, firing up grassroots conservatives who’ve gained increasing notice -- if not political power -- in recent months.

For many conservatives like Idaho resident Andi Elliott, looming immigration policy reform is simply proof that Democrats plan to “jam amnesty down our throat.”

“And those,” the Tea Party organizer in Hamer, Idaho, says, “are fighting words.”

Coming off a muscle-flexing summer of widespread protests and success in the off-year elections, the Tea Party coalition began its first major realignment Saturday, joining forces with anti-immigration reform groups in over 50 “Tea Party Against Amnesty and Illegal Immigration” rallies across the US in places from Anchorage, Alaska, to Snead, Alabama.

Critics say the emerging Tea Party coalition reminds them of the mid-1800s Whig party realignment, as pro-slavery Southern Whigs aligned themselves with anti-immigration forces, leading to the formation of the Know Nothing Party and the eventual demise of the Whigs as Northerners formed the Republican party.

A similar dynamic (minus the slavery issue) could be at play today. A big question for conservatives has been whether the Tea Party energy can be captured by the Republican Party or whether the Constitutionally-minded political insurgency will ultimately hurt the GOP’s “big tent” strategy to incorporate moderates into a revived voting bloc.

But treated at first as a joke by many liberals, the Tea Party movement has slowly earned the respect of mainstream analysts as it’s proved effective at mobilizing critical independents and, some say, helping to change the dynamics of the 2010 Congressional elections.

As a result, immigration reform proponents are tempering their optimism in the face of protests like the ones that took place Saturday.

“What are the prospects for an immigration law to pass? In my view decent,” says Arian Campo-Flores in a Newsweek op-ed. “That may sound naïve, given the fact that unemployment has topped 10 percent and tea-party activists are feeling more energized than ever.”

On Friday, Ms. Napolitano attempted to reframe the immigration reform agenda. She said Congressional demands that the government step up enforcement have been met. And she also argued that a downbeat economy is an appropriate time to revamp immigration law.

"These are major differences that should change the immigration conversation," said Ms. Napolitano.

Blogger Ed Morrissey at Hot Air thinks Democrats are misreading the political reality.

“Obama may have been thinking that he could split Republicans in 2010 by pushing the issue, but few in the GOP will go along with amnesty or Amnesty Lite with unemployment in the US above 10 percent,” writes Mr. Morrissey.

Meanwhile, the Tea Party/anti-amnesty coalition that took to the streets Saturday is tapping into the fears of America’s “silent majority,” says Ms. Elliott, in Idaho. “I think it’s going to be like World War II when the Japanese bombed us: They’re awakening a sleeping giant.”


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