Clyburn, Norquist and a kairos moment for comprehensive immigration reform

Congressman Jim Clyburn.

Congressman Jim Clyburn

The November 2012 presidential election results brought a stark, if not very surprising notice to the Republicans: it takes a much different message to win a general election than it does to win a GOP primary. Whether it is pandering to the religious right on women’s issues, to the intransigent Tea Party on taxes or to the far right on minority issues, the things that it takes to motivate a hyper-partisan conservative base are often distasteful to a majority of voters in a general election. Immigration has proven to be one of those areas and it may be even more troublesome because the sheer numbers and share of the electorate being alienated by GOP rhetoric is growing with each cycle, while the corresponding numbers for ‘angry white guys’ continues to decline.

“In key swing states, the Hispanic vote was crushing: 58 to 40 in Florida, 87 to 10 in Colorado, 80 to 17 in Nevada, and 66 to 31 in Virginia,” wrote Mona Charon in the National Review Online a couple of days after the vote. “Republicans were clobbered among Hispanics because the Republican primary electorate rewarded candidates for bellicosity regarding illegal immigration.”

I happen to think it was more than that, but it was against this backdrop that I found myself in Washington DC for meetings last week featuring speakers as disparate as Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina (who met his wife while spending time in jail during the struggle for civil rights) and conservative icon Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform.  Attendees came from more than half the 50 states; from conservative think tanks to agriculture, hospitality, landscaping, retail and other industries. We were there to discuss comprehensive immigration reform and most of the attendees at the National Immigration Forum’s strategy session were right wingers, by far. That’s important because most of the heavy lifting needs to be done on the Republican side of the aisle right now and these are traditional supporters to whom they pay attention. The collection of representatives from chambers of commerce, religious organizations and law enforcement informally billed itself as “business, bibles and badges.”

Jim Wallis of Sojourners talks with Grover Norquist at National Immigration Forum meeting.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners talks with Grover Norquist at National Immigration Forum meeting.

As chair of Marathon County’s Education and Economic Development Committee, I began trying to get the Marathon County Board to pass a resolution in support of comprehensive national immigration reform with my return to the board last spring and I wrote about that effort here last June.  At the time, county board members expressed the desire to have more information about the impact of immigration and current law in Marathon County before making a decision on whether to support changes. Part of that background necessarily includes understanding the direction of the national debate and — I believe — working to head off the kind of unproductive state-level measures that have come up in Arizona and Georgia. The prospects for success with comprehensive national immigration reform seem to be improving. And if Wisconsin’s citizens and local governments will assert themselves as a positive force in the discussion at the state level, we can become part of the solution instead of just another part of the problem.

“A statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait and listen until he hears the steps of God sounding through events; then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment,” said Prussian Prime Minister Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck back in the 1800s. It was true then and it is true now. While everyone in Washington at the National Strategy Session put on by the National Immigration Forum has been working on the issue for years, they were simply the people who heard the footsteps further off in the distance. Today, many more can hear the footsteps and they sound a lot closer.

Following passage of Arizona’s draconian “show me your papers” law in 2010, nearby Utah looked at what had been done and decided they should do something on immigration, too. Early polling showed that around 70 percent in Utah would support a law modeled after Arizona’s and Georgia followed suit with something on that order in 2011. But farther-sighted conservatives in the state whose motto is simply “Industry” had a different idea. What they came up with is the Utah Compact, a set of five principles to guide the state’s discussion of immigration. They are directed toward a much different policy response than what was foisted on Arizona and Georgia by their Republican lawmakers. You can read them here.

I sat with Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Paul Muro of the Sutherland Institute, Natalie Gochnour of the Salt Lake Chamber and others last Tuesday to learn about how they turned those early polling numbers in Utah on their head with a thoughtful discussion of immigration that ultimately led to the Utah legislature passing a guest worker program and deliberately distancing itself from approaches like Arizona’s and Georgia’s. Utah conservatives see immigration as an economic issue, as well as a moral issue.

“Public officials should create and administer laws that reflect the best of our aspirations as a just and caring society,” said a statement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in support of the Utah compact.  “Such laws will properly balance love for neighbors, family cohesion, and the observance of just and enforceable laws.” Likewise, there are resolutions in support of the Utah Compact from local governments, including city councils and school boards, along with corporate leaders and non-profit human service agencies across the political spectrum.

What I would say right now is that if Grover Norquist and Jim Clyburn can agree on some substantial elements for immigration reform, then it would seem like there should be plenty of room for reasonable people to come to some productive conclusions on the issue.  A thorough examination of local impacts can provide some useful guidance to our federal representatives, as well as put us into a position to advance the interests of immigrants, families, friends, employers, neighbors and our economy going forward.


Last Wednesday — the very same day that conservatives from the National Immigration Forum were visiting mostly GOP offices on Capitol Hill — an Ann Coulter column came out to illustrate what they’re up against in their own party:

Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s Christian Schneider says that without Hispanics, the GOP will become a permanent minority:

January 28, 2013 — Gang of Eight Immigration Plan: Reality-Based Legislating: 

January 29 — Obama says now is the time to move on immigration reform:

Wisconsin Dairy Business Association policy statement on immigration reform:

UPDATE – June 27, 2013 – U.S. Senate passes immigration reform bill:


One Response to “Clyburn, Norquist and a kairos moment for comprehensive immigration reform”

  1. […] Bibles, Badges and Business (BBB) Network that I talked about here in December and are holding an immigration reform roundtable in Wausau on Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 3 […]

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