Friday, February 2, 2007

Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, the Republican National Committee’s new general chairman, wants Congress to pass an immigration bill this year that will include a guest-worker program with “earned citizenship” requirements for illegal aliens.

Mr. Martinez, whose election encountered sharp opposition from some RNC members who think his support for giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship is a thinly veiled form of amnesty, said, “I don’t support deporting these people because I don’t believe that’s a realistic approach.”

In an interview with The Washington Times, his first since taking the helm of the RNC, he acknowledged the opposition to his election and his support for the Kennedy-McCain bill that called for a multistep process of earned amnesty for all but the most recent illegals. But he said, “My views on immigration are not well understood.”

“I did support Kennedy-McCain. I did vote for that, but I had some amendments to that bill that made it, I think, more conservative. We need border security and strong assimilation. I voted for the 700-mile fence on the border. I’m a strong advocate of these things,” he said.

“But I don’t wake up every morning worrying about the issue. It’s an important issue. It needs to be dealt with. But I don’t have some agenda here,” he said.

Asked what he would consider the ideal immigration bill, Mr. Martinez said he was working with Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and other conservative Republicans on a compromise that would call for a temporary-worker system along the lines that President Bush has proposed. “We’re trying to see if something can be worked out,” he said.

“I think it is important for people who would like to be American citizens, if they come here illegally, to pay some penalties for breaking the law, to undergo background checks, to see that they pass English proficiency tests and some sort of citizenship lesson, pay back taxes — all the things that I think would be sensible for someone to earn a path to citizenship but not an immediate citizenship,” he said.

Mr. Martinez said he realizes that any earned citizenship plan triggers opposition among many in his party but he hopes that a compromise can be reached around which the party can unite.

“I respect the right of some people to differ on whether I was the right person for the job or not. I was delighted that the opposition was as small as it was. I respect them, but then we move on,” he said. “My election to the RNC was not about immigration. It’s about the president’s belief that my voice could help the party win elections.”

Mr. Martinez also said the Republicans’ internal political battle over immigration has alienated much of the Hispanic community, but he believes the fast-growing minority voter bloc is “absolutely not a lost cause” in the 2008 elections.

“We’ve done very well with Hispanic voters in the past. It’s about reaching out and explaining our policies and what our party stands for,” he said.

Mr. Martinez — who fled communist Cuba as a youngster, a story that plays a central role in his political appeal — outlined an ambitious Hispanic outreach effort that he said he will lead as party chairman over the next two years.

“I’ll be speaking to Spanish media on radio and television, webcasts, podcasts and Hispanic groups, as [former RNC Chairman] Ken Mehlman did. We’ll reach out very strongly. We’re going to organize in the states in a way that will allow Hispanics to play a role in our party’s politics,” he said.

But the one thing that worries him the most is the residual anger and discontent at the party’s base that he says led to the House and Senate losses in November and represents a major challenge for Republicans to overcome in the 2008 elections.

“There is some anger out there at our party’s grass roots. We have to show them we’ve heard their message loud and clear and that we understand it,” he said. “We lost our path, our way. We didn’t adhere to the Republican principles that made us very successful. We lost the optimism of Ronald Reagan and the idea of fiscal restraint, and obviously the Iraq war played a part as well.”

But he said he is under no illusions about Republicans making a comeback in the next elections, noting that the party will have 21 senators up for re-election to only 12 for the Democrats.

“It’s going to be a tough cycle, but we’ll hold some and pick up some,” he said.

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