WASHINGTON — Traditional pillars of the Republican base, such as police groups, evangelical pastors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have begun to push skeptical GOP lawmakers to change federal immigration laws to allow most of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants to apply for legal status.
The issue has long been fought mostly between Republicans and Democrats. But the fate of a potential immigration overhaul may be determined by battles erupting inside the GOP.
"Now it's conservatives versus conservatives over how much immigration reform should happen," said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington that has advanced a free-market argument for opening up the immigration system.
President Obama has vowed to revise immigration laws early in his second term, but Republican support would be necessary to pass any significant legislation in the GOP-held House.
Some national Christian organizations, law enforcement officials and business leaders have begun coordinating a national campaign to convince voters that immigration reform can be consistent with conservative values. Gathering in Washington last week, leaders of several groups said the goal is to help Republicans in Congress who fear being voted out of office if they support legal status for illegal immigrants.
Republican strategists have dubbed the emerging coalition "Bibles, badges and business." And opponents are gearing up their own lobbying machinery in favor of restricting immigration.
"It is unfortunate that these groups have abandoned the base to support immigration reform that is not in the best interest of Americans," said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, a Virginia-based advocacy group that lobbies to reduce immigration levels and grades members of Congress. "We have 20 million Americans unemployed who can't find jobs."
But conservative views on immigration are changing. Recent polling shows a majority of Republican voters would support a plan that simultaneously tightens border security, requires employers to check the immigration status of new hires and creates a path to legal status for immigrants who have paid a fine and back taxes.
"The whole economy is suffering because we can't grow without immigration," said Carlos Gutierrez, former secretary of Commerce under President George W. Bush. He has helped create a political action committee to fund Republican congressional campaigns and "give cover to people who come out and admit they are for immigration reform," he said.
In coming months, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will try to convince local chapters that businesses will benefit from laws that make it easier for non-Americans to obtain work visas, and allow illegal immigrants to apply for permanent legal status, said Randel Johnson, a senior vice president for the chamber in Washington.
"We have time to build this right," Johnson said. Chamber officials are working with labor unions and other groups to help craft possible provisions for an immigration bill in May or June, he said.
The chamber has favored new laws for more than a decade, he said, but the organization is starting a more aggressive campaign to build public support.
"In the past, we didn't do what we needed," Johnson said. "Evangelicals bring another wrinkle to help us persuade Republicans to bring a bill."
A national network of evangelical pastors will encourage congregations to read 40 biblical passages about how to treat foreigners and to discuss how Scripture can inform the debate on immigration.
Called the "'I Was a Stranger' Challenge," the campaign is supported by several major Christian groups, including Sojourners, the National Assn. of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention. Many oppose abortion and gay marriage.
"I see this as a biblical justice and compassion issue," said Bill Hamel, president of the Evangelical Free Church of America, based in Minneapolis.
Hamel said he would encourage more than 1,000 churches affiliated with his organization to pray about immigration, and would meet his congressman, John Kline (R-Minn.), who has sought to lower immigration levels, to urge him to change his stance.
Some Republican law enforcement officials have joined the effort.
The lack of federal action on immigration has complicated the work of local police, said Gregory F. Zoeller, the Republican attorney general of Indiana. "It takes their eye off the ball of maintaining the safety of the people of Indiana," he said.
"Republicans need to change now because the country is changing," said Nowrasteh, the immigration expert at the Cato Institute. "It is self preservation as well."