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Post-Election, GOP's Immigration Message Evolves

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After an election in which Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for President Obama, the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill are making overtures about immigration reform.

House Speaker John Boehner says he's sure he can make a deal next year with the White House on a comprehensive bill. A steady procession of prominent GOP leaders are warning that Republicans won't win the White House again without improving their outreach to Latino voters. On Monday, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio explained the problem this way.

"It's really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother. It's very difficult to get people to listen to anything else you're saying," Rubio said. "So I think it's critical. There's just common sense involved here in terms of how you portray it. Policy matters, too, but rhetoric is important."

A comprehensive immigration bill would tackle three problems: border security and workplace enforcement; a revamp of the legal immigration system; and the thorniest issue of all — what to do with the 11 million people already here illegally.

In a warm-up of sorts Tuesday in Washington, two retiring GOP senators — Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona — took a stab at a tiny piece of immigration reform. They introduced a bill to allow young illegal immigrants to stay in this county legally if they enrolled in college or joined the military, but it would not offer them a path to citizenship.

"We have to get this ball rolling. We have to have a discussion that is sensible, that is calm, that discusses all of the different aspects of the issue, and this particular part of immigration reform seemed a logical place to begin," Kyl said.

And that might describe in general terms where Republicans decide to plant their flag on immigration. The old debate was amnesty vs. deportation. But that debate is now dead; its funeral was election night. The new debate has a new dividing line: legalization vs. citizenship.

"Republicans have to tread carefully on this. Unless they do a very impressive outreach to the Hispanic community right now, the more people you have to give citizenship, the more people you have voting against you," says Republican John Feehery, a former top House leadership aide. "Certainly the last election proves that. This is a concern of many on the right. They're saying, 'Why would you give citizenship to a bunch of people who are going to vote against you?' "

And that's why, despite a consensus among national Republican leaders, electoral math dictates that the party change its position on immigration reform. The rank and file — particularly members with safe Republican House districts — worry more about fending off anti-immigrant primary challengers.

"There are a lot of people who are still very much worried about illegal immigration flowing in, they're very much worried about amnesty," says Feehery. "And so this is going to take a real educational effort to let people understand that there's a policy imperative here. There's also a political imperative. And it's also going to require, I think, outreach by the business community but also by religious leaders to let these folks know, the most conservative folks know, that by being so anti-immigrant, it's just not the right thing to do."

That outreach is gearing up. Next week, a coalition of conservative business, faith and law enforcement leaders will meet in Washington to build momentum for immigration reform.

The debate won't start in earnest until next year. But in the meantime both sides are laying out their bottom lines. Legalization — short of citizenship — might end up being the Republicans'.

The congressional Hispanic caucus will lay out their principles Wednesday. For them, a path to citizenship is non-negotiable.

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