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updated 8/25/2011 3:50:52 PM ET 2011-08-25T19:50:52
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When Rick Perry got into the Republican presidential race, many party conservatives rejoiced that they had found their candidate. But not the party's vocal immigration hard-liners. On their issue, they rate the Texas governor slightly worse than the rest of the GOP presidential hopefuls.

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“We pulled everything we could get on Perry and immigration, and it came out to a D-minus,” said NumbersUSA Executive Director Roy Beck, who advocates for limited immigration into the United States.

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Proponents of tighter immigration restrictions have been a powerful force in the past, foiling then-President George W. Bush's hopes of enacting a bipartisan overhaul of the nation's immigration laws and fueling the career of Lou Dobbs. In the upcoming presidential campaign, however, they appear to be a constituency without a candidacy. On immigration, says Beck, "the Republican candidates and [President] Obama are virtually the same.”

For Republicans, immigration sits apart from other red-meat issues — such a abortion, gay marriage, or government spending — that can solidify their identities are rock-solid conservatives. Everyone can agree that border security is important; but beyond that, the policies get fuzzy. Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman consistently have supported in-state tuition for undocumented students.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has spoken in favor of high-skilled work visas. There's no one in the field like former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who ran for the presidency in 2008 on a get-tough-on-immigration platform. The former Colorado lawmaker has, however, founded the American Legacy Alliance, which recently filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to create a super PAC able to raise money in unlimited amounts to make independent election expenditures.

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But without a Tancredo-like presence in the presidential race, it may not make much of a difference how the candidates differ on the nuances of immigration. Voters will be looking at other issues.

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The people who want limited U.S. immigration are tough to please, and they don’t see any champions of their cause among those seeking the GOP nomination. Perry is in good company. NumbersUSA also gave D-minuses to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Huntsman, and Romney. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., got a B. Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain got a C-minus. Obama received an F-minus.

It’s a sorry lot, from Beck’s perspective, which means NumbersUSA probably will have little but criticism to lob at candidates during the presidential race. “We had high hopes for one [candidate], and that was [former Minnesota Gov. Tim] Pawlenty,” he said wistfully. Pawlenty dropped out after a disappointing finish in Iowa’s Ames Straw Poll earlier this month.

Based on her rhetoric, Bachmann is the best among a bunch of poor choices for immigration hard-liners. But the tough-talking debt hawk hasn’t stood out on immigration, even when she had the chance to cosponsor legislation to limit it, Beck said. (He also questioned whether a sophomore member of the House can actually win the Republican nomination.)

The immigration issue has created sharp rifts in the GOP. In a speech at the National Press Club last year, another Texas Republican accused immigration hard-liners of endangering the party's future. "Who in the Republican Party was the genius that said that now that we have identified the fastest-growing demographic in America, let's go out and alienate it?" said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, referring to the nation's burgeoning Hispanic population. Armey, who is closely identified with the tea party, called out Tancredo by name as he castigated conservatives' insistence for tighter border security.

"Republicans have got to get off this goofiness," Armey said. "Ronald Reagan said, 'Tear down that wall.' Tom Tancredo said, 'Build that wall.' Who's right?"

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Other conservatives, including evangelical Christians, are hanging their heads at the piercing tone from tea party affiliates who seem to want nothing from government on immigration except deportations. They share Armey's concern that such rhetoric will alienate conservative Hispanic voters who otherwise would embrace a Republican candidate. “The problem with the tea party is it's missing chips and salsa,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, who heads the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “It’s going to be very difficult to win critical swing states without engaging the Hispanic electorate.”

Evangelical Hispanics, in particular, are looking for Republicans whom they feel comfortable supporting. In 2004, 51 percent of non-Catholic Hispanics and 42 percent of self-identified born-again Hispanics preferred Bush over his opponent, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., according to a Washington Post/Univision survey. The overall preference for Bush, who actively promoted immigration reform, was 30 percent among Hispanics.

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Religious conservatives say they wish more Republicans would adopt a moderate tone on immigration in the vein of Bush. They also aren’t shy about supporting Obama’s immigration efforts. Religious leaders applauded last week’s directive from the Homeland Security Department that immigration officials can exercise discretion in determining who to deport. DHS said undocumented immigrants should rank low on the deportation priority list if, for example, they are veterans; came to the United States as children; are pregnant or nursing; or are victims of domestic violence or human trafficking.

Obama’s deportation policies, which by far have been the harshest of any administration, have landed heavily on the evangelical communities that are forced to deal with the chaos left in the wake of a deported parent forced to leave behind children, said Jenny Yang, director of advocacy and policy for World Relief's refugee and immigration program. Until last week, “otherwise law-abiding, God-fearing individuals were being deported. Families with U.S.-born citizen children were having their fathers and mothers ripped apart from them,” Yang said.

Utah’s Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is on a crusade to convince the GOP to temper its tone on immigration. He says that it makes no sense for people who want limited government to expect law enforcement to round up millions of undocumented immigrants who generally have no other problem with the law. “The only voice you hear from the Republican Party is a shrill, ‘Round them all up and take them home.’ It’s hurting our efforts to attract [independents], including the Latino vote,” he said.

The article, "GOP Presidential Field Soft on Immigration?," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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