Pro-Immigration Conservatives Seek Moral High Ground

PHOTO: Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Special Fiduciary Bruce Wisan answer questions during a community meeting regarding the United Effort Plan (UEP) trust Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 in Colorado City, Ariz.Trent Nelson/AP Photo/The Salt Lake Tribune
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Special Fiduciary Bruce Wisan answer questions during a community meeting regarding the United Effort Plan (UEP) trust Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 in Colorado City, Ariz.

As pro-immigration reform groups try to court conservatives and Republicans to their cause, they are deploying an unusual pitch: stating a moral belief that immigration reform is "the right thing to do."

On Tuesday, the National Immigration Forum kicked off a two-day confab that included 250 leaders from law enforcement, business, and faith groups from more than 26 states to strategize and meet with lawmakers and White House officials. And the pitch that conservatives made was more often than not based on moral reasoning in addition to economics.

"Fair and just immigration reform is first and foremost a moral issue," Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty, said at a press conference to kick off the event. "God has definite opinions about how we treat the stranger in our midst."

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference said that he hopes "the party of Lincoln remembers that the movement was founded upon a justice mandate" when considering the immigration issue. He even compared evangelical support for immigration reform as to Christians taking up the mantle of "Martin Luther King's march."

It was not just clergymen and religious figures who made that type of argument for immigration reform. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff also invoked President Abraham Lincoln's concern for "civil rights and individual freedom and liberty."

Lake County, Illinois Sheriff Mark Curran, Jr. described his "conversion" from an immigration hardliner to someone who "recognized the hard truths" after discussing the issue with leaders in the Catholic Church. He reasoned that he could not simultaneously be pro-life and pro-family while supporting immigration policies that can separate families through deportation.

"The bottom line is that we have to do the right thing," he said. "It's morally the right thing."

Former President George W. Bush, speaking at a separate immigration event in Texas, also used a moral rationale for immigration reform. He explained that immigrants fill "a critical gap in the labor market," but he also said they "invigorate our soul."

The robust rhetoric from pro-immigration reform by conservatives suggest they are emboldened following an election in which Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney put up a weak performance among Latino voters after adopting a tough position on immigration, including support for "self-deportation." Romney's campaign manager Matt Rhodes last week suggested that strategy was a mistake, but the admission came too late to repair the candidate's image among voters.

"Maybe Mitt Romney losing might be a blessing in disguise," Brad Bailey, a Republican and Texas restaurateur who founded the group The Texas Immigration Solution, told ABC/Univision News.

The Forum group's "consensus principles" on immigration call for "a road to lawful status and citizenship" for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. And several bigwigs at the National Immigration Forum event -- including Bailey and Shurtleff -- spoke in favor of a comprehensive approach that tackles all the issues at hand. But it's an understatement to say there are serious disagreements among conservatives on both key issues.

Conservative leaders at the event also heaped a cold dose of political reality on top of their "do the right thing" mantra. A good-faith effort to fix the nation's immigration system could provide political good will for Republicans even though President Barack Obama is ultimately the one who will sign the bill, they argued. Failing to help get it through could condemn the party to irrelevance.

"A lot of what happens in Washington is because of enlightened self-interest. And it should be clear to those in the Republican Party who opposed immigration reform that if they want to continue to be a contender for national leadership in this country, they're going to have to change their ways on immigration reform ... in order to be competitive in the Hispanic community," Land said. "We'll take their votes whether it's for the right reason or the wrong reason, as long as they vote the right way."