WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers is facing some political heat for her early part in the Republican Party’s debate on immigration.
Online opinions on her Jan. 19 op-ed in the Fayetteville Observer were largely negative and blamed her for not putting the interests of Americans ahead of those of illegal immigrants. The Daily Caller, a conservative news and opinion website, ran a story last week with a headline that said Ellmers wanted “conditional amnesty.”
Immigration is the primary line of attack against Ellmers by Frank Roche, a radio talk show host from Cary and her challenger in the May Republican congressional primary.
In an interview Wednesday, Roche said that immigration was the top issue of his campaign and “one of the number one things people want to talk about on the campaign trail,” especially when he ties it to the economy and jobs.
The question of how to handle the issue divided House Republicans during an hour-long discussion at their retreat in Maryland last week. Some lawmakers worried that the issue would tear the party apart. Party leaders made it clear no immigration votes were likely any time soon.
Ellmers, a Republican from Dunn, shunned interviews this week while the issue was still making waves. And the national attention did shift, at least on Wednesday, as news reports and celebrity gossip sites alike wrote about a challenge against her in her conservative 2nd District from American Idol season two runner-up Clay Aiken, a Democrat and Wake County, N.C., native.
Ellmers’ office would only give a written statement on immigration from her communications director, Thomas Doheny.
He said she “agrees with the immigration principles laid out at last week’s Republican retreat and thinks they are a good start. She is looking forward to working with her constituents, colleagues and people on all sides of the issue to formulate legislation and communicate ideas.”
The House Republican leadership’s principles on overhauling immigration call for greater border security and more enforcement of immigration law; legal immigration that focused on college-educated workers and agricultural workers; and legal status for those who pass background checks, pay fines and back taxes, learn English and show they can support themselves without welfare, but no “path to citizenship.”
“This is an important issue in our country, it’s been kicked around forever, and it needs to be dealt with,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday.
But he also signaled that he didn’t see any concrete action soon.
Roche opposes immigration changes under consideration in the House of Representatives and calls for lower legal immigration numbers. He criticized Ellmers for becoming an ally of the Republican House leadership, calling its members “career politicians” whom “we perceive in conservative circles in the 2nd District to be part of the problem in D.C.”
“The problem for her challengers is this is a fairly expensive district to get known in,” said David Wasserman, an analyst of House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s covered by a fairly expensive media market and at the moment, it doesn’t seem there are outside groups that have much of an appetite to take her on in the May primary.”
The two-term congresswoman also has more money to spend before the primary. Ellmers raised $204,210 in the fourth quarter and has $260,501 on hand. Roche raised $2,695 and has $1,758 on hand.
Still, Wasserman said, “she is one of the junior members who could get caught in the crosshairs of the immigration debate in the House.”
Ellmers in her op-ed said immigration policies required “a dedicated approach focused on facts and how the laws we enact impact our security, our economy and the lives of millions of Americans.”
She said that she had met with local leaders in housing, construction, hospitality, restaurant, research and development, high tech and agriculture, as well as immigrants, faith leaders and “reform-minded groups in the district.”
She called for immigration reform that included tighter border security.
“I do not support a ‘pathway to citizenship’ or ‘amnesty,’” she wrote.
But she does favor a way for people to gain legal work status “contingent on some combination of paying a penalty, admitting to violating the law and verifying identity.”
Earlier this week, Boehner said that “members seem to be rather supportive” of the House GOP proposed statement of principle on immigration.
He said “there was a lot of discussion about whether we should proceed and if we proceeded how we would proceed. It’s also clear from our members that we believe that securing our borders has to be the first step in this process.”
David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed.