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Immigrant groups try to steal thunder from tea party

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010

Immigrant-rights groups sought to tap some of the "tea party" thunder Thursday by using the anti-tax-and-spending movement's nationwide protests to argue illegal immigrants must be legalized because they are eager to pay their full taxes.

But tea partiers, rallying on the day federal income-tax returns were due, didn't buy it.

The collision between two of the big political movements in America is expected to escalate heading in to this year's midterm elections as both push the political parties from different directions.

"Here there are people who don't want to pay taxes, and we're saying there are all these people who want to carry the load and we don't allow them to," said Mary Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Center for Community Change. She led a delegation that delivered five boxes of blank tax forms to a Capitol Hill office as a symbol of all the tax money left uncollected because illegal immigrants have not been legalized.

The Immigration Policy Center and the Center for American Progress, two liberal-leaning think tanks, have estimated that legalizing illegal immigrants would generate between $4.5 billion and $5.4 billion in tax revenues over three years.

Tea party supporters mocked the idea.

"Oh man. How do they come up with this? They won't be real Americans if they love taxes," said Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who rallied with the tea partiers later in the day.

Hesaid the IRS won't turn down any extra revenue from illegal immigrants who want to pay it now, but alsodoubted legalization would be a good deal for American taxpayers.

Together, the immigrant-rights groups and the tea partiers represent the two big mass political movements of the last few years.

In 2006 and 2007, immigrant-rights marches and rallies drew millions of people to the streets of major cities and helped propel an immigration bill to the Senate floor both years. Neither bill made it out of Congress, but backers say the strength of Hispanic and immigrant votes helped send President Obama to the White House.

Since Mr. Obama took office, though, the tea parties have become the political movement to watch, with rallies across the nation attracting thousands of supporters, and with lawmakers in Washington trying to figure out how to harness the movement's energy.

The two forces have even gone head to head. Last month, on the day the health care bill passed the House, tea party supporters gathered on the Capitol's West Front lawn to voice their opposition, while blocks away tens of thousands of immigrants-rights supporters held a rally to demand legalization.

But some immigrant-rights backers argue that there should be a natural point of agreement between the two groups, and they point to studies that suggest legalizing illegal immigrants would be an overall help to taxpayers.

That point is hotly debated, with studies coming down on both sides of the question. There is no doubt many illegal immigrants work off the books, but analysts debate whether the new taxes generated would compensate for a possible higher use of government aid.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America's Voice, a leading immigration advocacy group, said the tea party is an outgrowth of anxiety over the government's failure to solve problems. She said if Congress could pass a bipartisan immigration bill it could show government can work.

She said polls don't show immigration being a galvanizing issue for tea party supporters, who have organized primarily around opposition to expanded government and too much spending.

Ms. Moreno said she's seen signs that anti-illegal-immigrant groups keep trying to co-opt the tea party, "but I don't think they've had much success."

Still, Mr. King, who has ties to tea party groups and is a leader on calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration, said tea partiers are more likely to come out in support of stronger border security and more immigration enforcement.

"There's a very strong conviction toward border security and the rule of law within people that have gotten newly active in the tea party. It has to be there, whether it's been voiced or not, because they are constitutionalists," he said.

Despite their differences, the two movements have shown they can turn supporters out on the streets and rally them to communicate with lawmakers. And both sides have plans to continue to do so in the run-up to this year's congressional elections.

But both sides stressed their differences.

"The right to protest is a very American right, and I think you'll see that in both the tea party movement and the immigrant reform movement. But the contrast really is about a positive outlook to the future and embracing this country, wanting to be part of this country," she said, adding that she has been struck by "how large and peaceful and patriotic and happy the immigration rallies are. It's literally families with blankets, picnics."

Mr. King noted another difference between the two movements: When they both rallied in Washington on the same day last month, the much larger immigrant-rights rally left far more trash on the nation's lawn, the National Mall.

"The tea party people leave it clean. That's not the fact with those other folks," he said.

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