Why Republicans Must Break the "Amnesty" Stereotype For Immigration Reform

War of words may decide whether there is a conservative revolt on immigration.

ByABC News
April 11, 2013, 10:53 AM

April 11, 2013— -- On the surface, the latest public poll on immigration reform produced a familiar result.

A strong majority of the American public supports an immigration overhaul that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, while most Republicans oppose such a proposal.

See Also: Immigration Not a Dealbreaker for Conservatives?

But a closer look at the survey produces a surprising phenomenon: Republican support for a pathway to citizenship skyrockets once they hear what the pathway entails.

Overall, 64 percent say they favor a pathway that would allow undocumented immigrants to eventually become U.S. citizens. But only 47 percent of self-identified Republicans say the same, while 51 percent say they oppose a path.

However, when respondents are told that the pathway would demand that undocumented immigrants pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a security background check before they become citizens, overall support jumps to 76 percent. Republican support increases by a whopping 26 percentage points to 73 percent.

The upshot?

GOP politicians and opinion leaders for years railed against a path to citizenship, saying it's tantamount to "amnesty" that would automatically grant citizenship to the undocumented. But once Republicans hear what is in the proposals being considered by Congress, it doesn't sound like amnesty any more.

Republican lawmakers negotiating an immigration deal, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), have had to walk a tightrope when dealing with the issue, balancing the concerns of party elders who believe that passing immigration reform is a crucial step to winning back Latino voters and the conservative base, which contains large pockets of resistance to immigration reform.

A cottage industry has sprouted up in Republican circles designed to sell immigration reform to the conservative grassroots. Faith-based groups and business groups have begun to spend money on messaging and outreach designed to short-circuit a conservative revolt against immigration reform, which helped kill the last effort to pass a bill in 2007.

With this poll in mind, the first and foremost task for these groups should be explaining what's in the bill in order to break down many of the "myths" surrounding the immigration issue.

John McLaughlin is a Republican pollster who recently conducted focus groups on immigration with conservative primary voters in Iowa and South Carolina. Like the NBC/WSJ poll, McLaughlin's results showed that conservative voters were supportive of a pathway to citizenship, but only after they were told that the pathway would be a tough and lengthy process.

"One of the key things for Republicans is to get the idea out that there are all these conditions in here and it's not amnesty," McLaughlin told a group of reporters last month.

That might not be so easy. The term "pathway to citizenship" has become almost as loaded as the word "amnesty" among Republicans. So much so that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) refused to use the phrase when announcing his support for immigration reform.

For Republicans the bottom line is this: if they don't find an effective way to explain immigration reform thoroughly to their base, it could backfire on them.