By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
As the politics of immigration reform heats up in the Statehouse and Congress, a prominent Republican is ramping up his efforts to rid the influence of what he calls anti-immigrant “extremists” in his party.
Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is scheduled to be in Indianapolis today for private meetings with well-heeled potential donors to his new political action committee, Republicans for Immigration Reform.
His ultimate goal: to raise the mountains of money needed to “provide cover” for pro-immigration Republicans at risk of being targeted in their next primary election.
“We need to prevent the extreme voices from speaking for our party,” Gutierrez said.
“We’re supposed to be the party of prosperity and opportunity,” he added. “But we can’t be those things if we’re seen as the party of anti-immigrants.”
Gutierrez, a Cuban-American, is a significant voice in the immigration reform debate. He was commerce secretary to President George W. Bush and an advisor to the 2012 Mitt Romney presidential campaign.
After Romney’s loss, he teamed up with Washington lawyer Charlie Spies, co-founder of the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, to create the new Republicans for Immigration Reform.
Gutierrez is unabashed in his criticism of how Romney and the Republican Party blew the last election.
He said Romney’s call for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to “self deport” was pandering to far-right Republicans who are the harshest critics of illegal immigration.
Gutierrez said immigrants of all kinds, including those here legally, were offended. “By treating one group of immigrants with such disdain, all immigrants felt like the Republican party was saying to them: ‘You’re not welcome here.’”
Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. “We lost the Asian-American vote by an even larger margin,” Gutierrez said.
Former Republican state legislator Mike Murphy said Gutierrez’s visit to Indiana sends two signals:
One, that national Republicans believe some members of Indiana’s congressional delegation may be open to federal legislation that would create a pathway to legal status for undocumented workers, students and children.
Second, said Murphy: “It’s clear that Indiana is being seen as a battleground for the hearts and minds of people on this issue.”
Gutierrez wants his super PAC to raise the needed millions of dollars to counter the super PAC money that’s been spent in the past to knock off pro-immigration Republican candidates.
It won’t be an easy task: Last May, longtime U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar lost his primary bid after outside super PACs – including Restore Our Future — poured money into his opponent’s campaign.
One of the issues Lugar was hammered on: His support of the federal DREAM Act, which would have created a path for citizenship for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their immigrant parents.
Brian Howey, longtime political analyst with the Howey Political Report, said Gutierrez’s plea for support may resonate with Republican stalwarts who still mourn Lugar’s loss. Democrat Joe Donnelly won the seat in the November election.
“They booted away a safe Republican Senate seat,” Howey said.
Congress is expected to take up debate soon on federal immigration reform. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, known as the “Gang of Eight,” has been working on comprehensive legislation that includes measures to secure the U.S. border, allow thousands of foreign workers into the country, and grant eventual citizenship to undocumented immigrants living here illegally.
In the Indiana Statehouse, legislators are debating a bill that would roll back the state’s two-year-old ban on in-state college tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants. The bill is being carried by some key Republicans, who’ve called the ban unnecessarily punitive because the high cost of out-of-state tuition blocks those students’ access to college.
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.