Dec. 3, 2012— -- How acceptable is it for conservatives to talk about immigration reform in Washington these days? So acceptable that one of the country's leading advocates for immigration restriction is open to the idea of a path to citizenship for millions of people.
As the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a non-partisan think tank, Mark Krikorian is better known for promoting a "hawkish stand on immigration enforcement" than talking about green cards for undocumented immigrants. But times have changed. Sort of.
Last week, Krikorian wrote in a National Review article that a compromise on immigration reform could mean amnesty. But only "in exchange for an end to future mass immigration [and] after the implementation of enforcement tools to ensure we don't have another 11 million illegals a few years down the road," he wrote.
Krikorian told ABC/Univision that the idea isn't necessarily new for him, but that he believes it's the first time that he's laid out such a trade-off in an article.
"I'm not wild about it, but, practically speaking, you could make a case for it," he said. "If it's the last amnesty."
Part of what makes Krikorian's new public stance so interesting is that the Center for Immigration Studies is the leading academic voice in favor of decreasing immigration in the U.S. In his role as head of the center, Krikorian has opposed past immigration reform efforts, like President George W. Bush's 2007 push for amnesty. The organization has also released reports questioning birthright citizenship and tying a lack of border security to the growth of transnational gangs.
To some degree, that point of view is reflected in what Krikorian is proposing now. He said before politicians consider amnesty, additional enforcement programs need to be in place. That means mandating businesses to use E-Verify, a federal database that checks the work-eligibility of employees, as well as better tracking at U.S. border crossings.
When he says an end to mass immigration, Krikorian isn't just talking about illegal immigration, he's talking about cutting legal immigration in half, from roughly 1.1 million new green card holders per year to 550,000.
To accomplish that, he would reduce the number of family-based immigration visas, limiting them to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens. He would also narrow the number of immigrants admitted as highly skilled workers saying, "skilled immigration should be limited to Einstein."
But Krikorian's view doesn't reflect the congressional mainstream, according to Marshall Fitz, the director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a non-partisan think tank with liberal leanings.
"There are a few hot heads in Congress who take that position," he said, "but not any that are going to be at the center of these negotiations."
Krikorian doesn't necessarily agree.
"Policy doesn't just get made in some congressional backroom," he said. "This is definitely an opportunity for a think tank like the one I run to help shape the way the thinking on this gels in the next several years."
Similarly, Roy Beck, the head of another restrictionist organization, NumbersUSA, said that if all his organization's demands for immigration enforcement are met "there's probably a place to compromise on amnesty."
Beck acknowledged that any talk of amnesty could be unpopular with those affiliated with NumbersUSA: "Among our 1.3 million activists, it's quite possible the majority of them, we haven't polled them on this, would oppose any kind of amnesty."
That said, it's clear the role played by Latino voters in the last presidential election has prominent Republican politicians looking at immigration as a way to win future votes, and Krikorian's talk about amnesty is a recognition of that new reality, according to Alex Patton, a GOP consultant and pollster for Ozean Consulting.
"I think they realize that they're going to have to move off this intransigent position or they're going to just get left behind," he said.