Tea Party Express Co-Founder Backs Immigration Overhaul Efforts

The co-founder of and chief strategist for one of the biggest tea party organizations is coming out in support of overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, a bold statement that could energize advocates and alienate conservatives.

Sal Russo of the Tea Party Express broke the news in an op-ed titled “Conservatives Need to Fix the Broken Immigration System,” published by CQ Roll Call early Wednesday morning.

In that piece, the longtime GOP operative and consultant argued that “conservatives should be at the forefront of reform so the law reflects the just interests of the United States, not misty-eyed ideals of some of the liberal do-gooder reformers.”

That means no special pathways to citizenship that allow undocumented immigrants to cut in line, Russo cautioned, but rather some reasonable procedures that require “the 11 million people who are here illegally obey the law, pay taxes and come out of the shadows.

“We have to get them right by the law in exchange for legal status, but not unbridled amnesty,” Russo wrote. “This should include penalties, background checks to root out criminals, and the requirement that they learn English, understand the Constitution and be committed to our basic freedoms.”

Russo did not single out the House Republican Conference for its lack of consensus on whether to move forward with immigration overhaul legislation, nor did he name-check members of GOP leadership on whom the onus lies to move such legislation forward.

But Russo’s support for a comprehensive immigration fix that includes a legal status pathway — plus his suggestion that “conservatives need to seize on immigration reform” in order to “reaffirm who we are and what makes our country great” — is likely to raise eyebrows on all sides of the immigration debate.

Democrats and pro-immigration overhaul advocates may use Russo’s words as proof that the tides are changing on the issue and it’s only a matter of time before Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is forced to throw his weight behind a legislative fix.

It could even be fodder for someone like Thomas Donahue, the president of the influential and right-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who tried to drive the point home at an event on Monday by proclaiming that the GOP “shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016″ if Republicans can’t do anything affirmative on immigration this year.

Boehner spoke at a luncheon on Monday sponsored by several San Antonio business groups, where he reiterated his belief that most of his colleagues support an immigration overhaul but lack trust in President Barack Obama’s willingness to enforce the law.

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