Republican National Committee Members Tiptoe on Immigration Issue

“Last year, I did talk privately with [White House adviser] Karl Rove about the concerns our party has with illegal immigration,” a Republican National Committee member who requested anonymity told me. “I later had assurances that the President would address those concerns in his [convention] speech in New York City. But two days before the speech, I learned that the references to illegal immigration were taken out. The administration apparently felt it was too sensitive for him to talk about publicly.” That pretty much summed up the general attitude about President Bush and his immigration program among the participants of the RNC winter meeting at the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Washington this week. Many of the 165 national committee members realize the issue of illegal immigrants is of growing concern to their grass-roots activists but few wish to criticize their just-re-elected President for failing to address it. Moreover, despite a desire for tougher measures to secure the border, many RNC members tone down their feelings on the issue out of fear that the GOP might appear insensitive to Hispanic voters. In separate addresses to the RNC, neither President Bush nor newly elected Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman mentioned illegal immigration. North Dakota Republican National Committeewoman Connie Nicholas was sounding the same line that many of her colleagues were noting privately when she told me: “There’s no question the border needs to be tightened. But, even though many Hispanic voters are culturally in tune with the Republican Party, we’ve got to tread lightly on this issue. It’s a delicate situation.” “A balancing act,” is what Oklahoma National Committeeman Lynn Windel said the President needs to be doing on immigration. Pressed as to what he thought of the President’s guest-worker program, Windel told me he was “not comfortable with it,” adding that Bush “says it’s not an amnesty but it sure sounds like one. America rewards those who have done something legally.” California State GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim, a close ally of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who has been criticized for not taking a tough stand on illegal immigration), did not comment on the Bush program. “But [California GOP Rep.] David Dreier has a proposal that’s interesting,” he said. “That is for issuance of a magnetized Social Security card with a picture to show that they’re here legally.” Interestingly, Dreier rarely addressed the issue of illegal immigration until it became an issue in his race last year–when he was re-elected with a career-low of 53% in a heavily Republican district. Wisconsin GOP National Committeewoman Mary Buestrin made a poignant observation. “I can’t address how the President feels on this issue, but I know how I feel,” she said. “There are so many voting illegally in Wisconsin that the illegally cast votes may well have cost George W. Bush our state’s electoral votes in a very close race. Something has to be done.”