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Texas Senators Keep Their Distance From Immigration Bills

Texas Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are keeping a relatively low profile on immigration changes as they grapple with splits in the Texas GOP base over the issue.

Though immigration policy is major issue in the state, neither lawmaker was part of the bipartisan group of eight senators that released a framework this week for a comprehensive overhaul. Cornyn, who is up for re-election in 2014, is the ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security. The chairman of the subcommittee, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has been a leader of the group of eight.

Cruz, a tea party favorite, said in a statement that he was pleased with some parts of the framework, but noted that he has “deep concerns with the proposed path to citizenship. To allow those who came here illegally to be placed on such a path is both inconsistent with rule of law and profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who waited years, if not decades, to come to America legally.”

Cornyn gave a similar appraisal as he seeks to protect his right flank.

Speaking on Andrea Tantaros’ radio show Tuesday, Cornyn said he didn’t “want to discourage” the bipartisan effort by the eight senators, but he added: “I do worry that people get the cart ahead of the horse and start talking about a pathway to citizenship before they talk about the prerequisites to that — and really what I would consider to be necessary confidence building measures — to show that the federal government and Congress can be trusted when it comes to border security, when it comes to work site enforcement and when it comes to visa overstays, which accounts for about 40 percent of immigration currently.”

Cornyn also said he thinks the solution, if possible, should come from the Judiciary Committee and was skeptical of a plan crafted “behind closed doors.”

The caution from both men probably has more to do with the political minefield immigration overhaul efforts can be in Texas, where 38 percent of the population is Hispanic but the tea party still has significant sway over the GOP.

In addition, the GOP establishment in Washington, D.C., has been struggling to address immigration in an effort to win over Republican Latino voters who have been turned off of the GOP because of its policies and harsh rhetoric.

The strategy chafes conservatives who believe that the move comes at the expense of their principles.

“There is a huge divide,” on the issue within the party said Dean Wright, co-founder and director of New Revolution Now, a Texas-based grass-roots conservative group.

“It’s a huge dilution of conservative principles and values and it’s not doing anything good for illegal immigrants,” Wright said of the political rationale to take on a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

Wright, a Republican delegate to the past two national party conventions, believes that rushing to address the immigration issue will result in “amnesty” for those who came here illegally. He prefers a piecemeal approach that begins with securing the border.

Wright said he expects to be disappointed by Cornyn, whom he sees as an establishment Republican.

“Cornyn is not looked at very favorably among the grass roots,” Wright said. He added that he expects Cornyn to face a primary challenger, but was unsure, at this point, if the challenge would be successful.

He said conservatives hope to find a candidate as successful as Cruz, who was elected in November after upsetting establishment Republican candidate David Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor, in the GOP primary.

“I know [Cornyn] has a lot of support among the [GOP] establishment, but so did David Dewhurst and we were able to overcome that. I don’t know if we’ll be able to overcome it with Cornyn if we don’t get a great candidate like Ted Cruz,” Wright said.

One Texas GOP operative agreed that Cornyn could get a primary challenger, but doesn’t expect any serious threat.

“Cornyn has done a really good job making sure he and Cruz are on the same page,” said the operative. “Cruz is very adored by GOP primary electorate, more so than Cornyn. I’ve seen that in polling. … [It] makes good political sense.”

Another Texas GOP political consultant said there is a segment of the party that wants Cornyn to be challenged, but the movement may be waning, which could help the senator retain his seat.

“When it comes to crazies Texas really is a whole different level,” the consultant said. “I’m not sure their thirst can be quenched. He’s preparing for somebody.”

But Wright said he is fairly confidant that Cruz will hew to conservative principles.

“At this point I am confident that Ted Cruz” will not disappoint conservatives, he said.

Mark P. Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University, said at the moment, Cornyn faces a relatively easy path to re-election. But, he noted, the immigration issue will play an important role in determining how easy.

Cornyn “could be potentially vulnerable if he is considered to be pro-amnesty” especially if Cruz doesn’t provide him cover on the issue, Jones said. “Given Cruz’s strong support among the grass roots here in Texas he would inoculate Cornyn to any potential attacks for supporting amnesty if he supported the same immigration reform plan,” Jones said.

Last summer, the Texas Republican Party adopted a state platform — called the “Texas Solution” — that supports a federal guest worker program to allow the undocumented to enter the country to work. But some Republicans, such as Wright, believe it amounts to amnesty.

Under the proposal, immigrants would have meet certain criteria to participate: pass a criminal background check, pay any immigration fines, carry private or workplace health insurance, waive government assistance, know English, pass a civics class and be subject to payroll taxes.

Earlier this month, the influential Texas Federation of Republican Women adopted a resolution urging the federal government to take on comprehensive immigration reform. Wright pointed to the action as the latest example of the divide in the state party.

Part of the division is driven by the desire of GOP leaders to attract the growing population of Latino voters to ensure long-term competitiveness with Democrats.

“The Republicans in Texas are in a short-term, long-term dilemma,” Jones said.

“In the short-term, if they push for a comprehensive immigration reform that involves what would be called amnesty by many, they run the risk of antagonizing their base and thereby suffering in primary elections,” Jones continued. “But in the medium- to long-term, if Republicans’ share of the Hispanic vote continues to drop, which it’s likely to until this immigration reform issue is removed from the front burner, then they are destined to return to the status of a minority party here in Texas, potentially as early as 2018, but certainly sometime in the 2020s.”

Jones said that the 18 and over Hispanic population in Texas, including the undocumented, will make up 43 percent of the population by 2030.

Immigration reform advocates hope the changing demographics will sway Republicans and Democrats to support policy changes.

Frank Sharry, executive director of left-leaning immigration advocacy group America’s Voice, said he was hopeful that the changing demographics would ultimately push Cornyn and Cruz to support the proposal.

Sharry noted that Cornyn has opposed comprehensive reform efforts in the past and compared him to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who also faces re-election in 2014 but is a member of the group of eight senators.

“Cornyn is cautious to a fault, and Graham may be courageous to a fault,” Sharry said, highlighting the fact that Graham could also face a primary challenge.

Nevertheless, he said Graham “uses every ounce of his political capitol for the causes he believes in and Cornyn uses every moment to carefully guard what little political capital he has.”

“Its just a very different approach,” Sharry said.

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