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Tea party leader says now is time to fix immigration system

Conservatives want a voice in debate on bill

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One of the original organizers of the tea party movement said Wednesday that the time has come for conservatives to agree to tackle the immigration issue, adding fuel to the push for Republicans to agree to a bill this year.

Sal Russo, who co-founded the Tea Party Express in 2009 and remains the group's chief strategist, said he didn't want to dictate the outlines of a deal and didn't embrace a specific type of legalization, but said it's time for conservatives to gain a voice in the debate.

"Today, a lot of conservatives, when they hear immigration reform, what they really hear is amnesty. And that vocabulary needs to change. It's in our interest to change the broken immigration system," he told reporters in a call arranged by other conservative advocates who back legalizing illegal immigrants.

Democrats say the Republican majority in the House has a small opening to act on a bill, or risk shelving the issue for years and leaving a harsh record in elections this year and in 2016, with Hispanic voters representing an ever-growing slice of the electorate.

President Obama said Tuesday that the window for action in the House was "two to three months."

"A number of Republicans are realizing that blocking immigration reform is not a good idea," he said at a gathering with law enforcement groups that also want Congress to pass a legalization bill.

Senators, in a bipartisan vote last year, cleared a bill that grants quick legal status and an eventual chance at citizenship to most illegal immigrants, coupling it with a massive boost in border security and a rewrite of the legal immigration system.

House Republican leaders have said they want to tackle the issue in pieces, but their efforts have been rejected by their own troops who don't see a clamor for action from constituents and don't see any good options on the table.

Last week, Rep. Raul R. Labrador, Idaho Republican, suggested a bill that would relieve some of the worst penalties for illegal immigrants and couple it with legislation to expand green cards for high-skilled foreign workers.

Immigrant rights groups said his proposal was too narrow, and those who want a crackdown on illegal immigration said it sounded like the beginning of an amnesty program.

An option floated by some Republicans and Democrats would add a more modest legalization plan to the annual defense policy bill, promising a path to citizenship to young illegal immigrants who agree to join the military.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, announced a hearing next week to explore the proposal.

The idea has drawn fire from veterans groups, which say it would inject a thorny partisan issue into the defense debate and could jeopardize legislation that sets troop levels and other military priorities.

The Heritage Foundation warned Wednesday that it would dock lawmakers who voted for the military provision in its influential scorecard.

"The Enlist Act is unnecessary for national security, makes a mockery of U.S. immigration law, and is a slap in the face to those who want to come here and play by the rules," said James Jay Carafano, the Heritage Foundation's vice president for foreign and defense policy studies.

Immigrant rights advocates say Republicans are increasingly isolated on the issue. They point to business groups, religious organizations and some social conservative advocacy groups that are demanding action.

Mr. Russo's push adds at least some segment of the tea party movement to that group.

Steve Case, founder of AOL, who was part of the call with Mr. Russo, said enough Republicans have survived primary contests that their leadership can be confident in making tough decisions without voter backlash.

"Given the fact that the primary deadlines have largely closed, we do have a window here in the next two or three months. I think if we fail to get this done by the August recess we lose momentum," Mr. Case said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who has led opposition to an immigration bill, said Americans should be worried about pressure on Congress from big businesses that are angling for more low-wage workers who, he said, will undercut their pay.

"It is not xenophobic but compassionate to say we should focus our attention on helping struggling American workers. It is not xenophobic but our patriotic duty to defend the integrity of our borders and the rule of law. It is the oath we all took as senators to defend the Constitution of the United States," he said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Mr. Russo said the immigration issue won't rate high in tea party endorsements. He said he expects groups to focus instead on core economic issues.

The Partnership for a New American Economy, which helped organize Mr. Russo's announcement, said polling data showed that a majority of voters who sympathize with the tea party would be open to granting legal status to illegal immigrants, with strict conditions attached.

Still, the poll found those tea party voters place immigration last on a list of six issues that are critical to their votes for Congress this year. Government spending and debt remained at the top.

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