Tea partier Rep. Steve Southerland voices immigration-reform support

Conservative tea party Congressman Steve Southerland has become the latest Republican to voice support for the concept of a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.

“We have to address it. It’s a moral issue,” Southerland, who represents a conservative Deep South district encompassing Panama City and Tallahassee, told The Miami Herald during a Friday meeting in Miami.

Southerland’s support isn’t full-throated or guaranteed. He said he needs to see the details of actual legislation. He wants strict, real and fast border security.

But Southerland's comments are another sign that immigration reform still has a shot in the GOP-held U.S. House of Representatives, where a handful of Republicans have indicated new support for immigration reform during congress’ August recess.

During that time Miami Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart has been working to persuade about a dozen in the GOP to back immigration reform, provide their input or not be too vocal in opposing it.

Southerland said he speaks frequently to Diaz-Balart. But he gave a big amount of credit for his views on immigration reform to a college graduate named Juan Espinoza, who spoke up at a Tallahassee town hall this month.

Brought to this country when he was four, Espinoza told Southerland that he has two college degrees and wants to stay in the country he was raised in, but he’s not a citizen nor is he here illegally.

Espinoza, who declined to comment to The Miami Herald, asked Southerland if he supported a path to citizenship, but Southerland appeared noncommittal at the time.

Two weeks later, on Friday, Southerland said Espinoza made an impression on him.

“He’s educated and he’s smart,” Southerland said. “We have to make sure that a young person like that has a way. This is his home. We have to make sure that he has a way to be legitimized as a citizen.”

At the Tallahassee meeting where Espinoza spoke, Southerland was harangued by Democratic activists who wanted him to say whether he supported the legalization of as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants.

One woman used a crude expletive to describe what she thought was an evasion by the congressman, prompting Southerland to criticize her language.

“I’m not voting for a bill that I haven’t read,” Southerland said then.

But when asked Friday in Miami, Southerland sounded more open to the idea of a general pathway to citizenship, Still, he drew a distinction between young people brought as children and those who came when they were older and knew they were breaking the law.

Southerland said he wasn’t sure about whether they should be granted a special path to citizenship or legal residency.

“If there’s going to be a chance to create a legal path, there has to be a recognition of the wrong done,” Southerland said, indicating they would need to pay fines and express contrition. “But I believe in reconciliation.”

Southerland said he didn’t like the phrase “comprehensive immigration reform,” because “the word ‘comprehensive’ gives you the thought you have to accept a bunch of bad things.”

Southerland said he opposed the Democrat-controlled Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill, which conservatives have bashed as too much “amnesty” with too little border enforcement.

The Senate bill has, in the eyes of some conservatives, also tarnished the reputation of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who helped draft it.

But during the August recess, Orlando Republican Rep. Dan Webster announced limited support for a citizenship path as has Illinois Republican Aaron Schock. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy has expressed some support for an earned path to legal residency — but not citizenship — for illegal immigrants.

A majority of Republicans still appear to oppose comprehensive immigration reform in the House.

“The dribs and drabs of support — it doesn’t impress me as significant,” said Mark Krikorian, a leading conservative immigration-reform critic with the Center for Immigration Studies.

“The proponents like to trot out kids who were brought here when they were two weeks old, but what they don’t say is how many more came when they were much older,” he said.

Krikorian said the status of immigration reform in Congress is “still very fluid.”

Indeed, the House is working on a series of bills instead of one big bill. But the bills could be combined with the Senate bill in a conference committee and go to the House floor where a handful of Republicans could join Democrats and vote it out.

Speaker John Boehner has said he doesn’t want a vote on a bill that a majority of Republicans don’t support.

But it still could happen if all House Democrats can get 18 Republicans to unite behind a bill and file what’s known as a “discharge petition” to bring pending legislation directly to the floor.

That’s unlikely to happen with the Senate bill, but Miami’s Diaz-Balart is working with a bipartisan group on a more conservative House version that could make it to the floor.

In pitching conservatives on immigration reform, proponents focus on the “three Bs:” Bibles, badges and business. That is, they concentrate on making moral, law-enforcement and economic arguments.

Southerland, a businessman before he was elected, is open to all three concepts.

“I am open to finding what I believe is morally the right thing,” Southerland said. “No law-abiding person should live in the shadows.”