Gov. Phil Bryant and other Republican leaders in Mississippi state government may soon find themselves pressured by national GOP leaders to be kinder and gentler on immigration.
In the end, the first-term Republican governor could find himself pulled one way by a national party that wants to soften its image as anti-immigrant to regain at least some of the Hispanic vote and the other way by Tea Party supporters who want a “papers please” law like Arizona’s.
Bryant led a failed campaign last year to enact a stringent immigration law that would have authorized law enforcement to demand legal residency documents of motorists. His measure also would have prevented the renting of residences and providing of utilities services to undocumented immigrants. School administrators would also have been obligated to report students whose parents could not provide proof of legal residency.
Bryant supported a failed effort to enact a similar law the year before.
The coming year could be different, although Bryant has not indicated any retreat in his insistence on tough immigration enforcement.
In Washington, congressional Republicans are also under pressure to compromise with President Obama on a bill that the New York Times says provides illegal immigrants, or at least those who arrived in the United States as children, with a path to legal status. Senate leaders in both parties said on Sunday that they were renewing negotiations to seek a deal.
Washington is only half the battle, however.
Governors such as Bryant will have to be persuaded that the GOP can’t truly have a big tent until it becomes more welcoming to immigrants.
Latinos will never vote Republican, “if they think your political party just doesn’t want you as a neighbor,” said Joshua S. Treviño, a speechwriter in George W. Bush’s administration who now works for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, in a NY Times interview Sunday.
Some of the pressure on Bryant and other Tea Party supported governors could come from rising GOP leaders such as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to” Hispanics, Rubio said in a Times interview after a GOP presidential election defeat last week that included losses of heavily Hispanic states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
Rubio insisted the party can stand firm on conservative principles while finding a “proactive response” on issues like immigration and gay rights.
“We can’t simply be the party of no,” he said in the Times interview.
The Tea Party is not ready to say yes, however. Many of its members, including House incumbents from safe districts and deep-pocketed financiers, hold outsize influence in the GOP, the Times reports.
Bryant and other conservative governors are likely to hear that compromise would amount to a moral violation, says former Republican presidential candidate and current Fox News host Mike Huckabee.
The former Arkansas governor told the Times that many conservatives don’t see their positions on immigration as political. “They’re deeply held moral positions by the people who hold them,” he says.
But how long Mississippi’s governor and legislative leaders will continue to hold their positions in the face of national Republican Party pressure isn’t clear.