Grover Norquist is known as an anti-tax crusader, but in the coming weeks he will be just as much a pro-immigration crusader, combatting what he calls the “bitter enders” who oppose comprehensive immigration reform.
Norquist says that he’s trying to counteract the effect of “a handful of radio talk-show hosts who talk loudly.”
“The bitter-enders who are still responding to radio talk-show hosts from eight years ago haven’t noticed that the world has shifted from underneath them,” he says. “The people who need cover are the guys who are still voting like they were Pat Buchanan.”
Norquist’s group, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), is using its famous Wednesday meeting as a model for marshaling conservative activists behind an immigration overhaul. In recent weeks, Norquist and his advisers have hosted fortnightly Friday meetings for conservative leaders and pro-reform Republicans.
The meetings connect conservative-movement organizations, members of the business community, and Hill staffers — including staffers from some of the offices of members of the Senate’s Gang of Eight. In the closed-door sessions, the attendees coordinate strategy and messaging and discuss the Gang’s latest developments. While a typical Wednesday meeting often addresses dozens of topics, the Friday meeting is all about making comprehensive immigration reform a legislative reality.
The organizations that have sent representatives to the meetings include the Cato Institute, the Hispanic Leadership Network (an offshoot of the American Action Network), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Hispanic Leadership Fund.
Norquist has long been a central player in organizing conservative support for an immigration overhaul, and during this round of immigration negotiations he continues to work both publicly and privately to push for “an actual guest-worker program,” as one person familiar with ATR’s work describes it, as well as a secure border. He and his group want a big, sweeping approach that will be seen as welcoming to Hispanics and other groups who have been turned off by the GOP’s messaging on the issue.
But though they’re being strategic and quiet about the meetings, Norquist is quite vocal about the importance of reform. When I ask him about arguments against comprehensive reform from a few Republican members of the Senate Budget Committee — they’ve argued that entitlement payments will skyrocket if such reform comes before the border is secure — the anti-tax crusader is blunt.
“The idea of treating people as a liability — that more people coming in might go on welfare — that’s an argument against having babies, that’s an argument for car accidents, an argument for abortion,” he tells me. “We ought to be in favor of people not getting killed in car accidents, not getting aborted, and immigrating to the United States — and reforming welfare. You don’t screw up your policies to fit a stupid government program. You reform the stupid government program.”
ATR’s Friday meetings have made the group the movement’s unofficial home for pro-reform discussions, and set it up to be the chief foil of the Heritage Foundation — another prominent movement organization, but one opposed to the thrust of the Gang’s aims. As Sara Murray reported for the Wall Street Journal, ATR is already trying to debunk Heritage’s claim (authored by senior research fellow Robert Rector) that reform would result in an entitlement-spending hike of more than $2 trillion. ATR’s Josh Culling sent an e-mail to over 800 GOP aides this week arguing that forthcoming Heritage data on the subject would be inaccurate and skewed. That tactic is part of the Norquist circle’s effort to be an alternative voice — and a loud one — on how conservatives should regard immigration reform.
But Norquist tells me his biggest concern about the future of immigration reform is with opposition not from Republicans but from the AFL-CIO and other public-sector unions. The unions have always worked to stop the institution of an effective guest-worker program, he says. If the AFL-CIO has its way, Norquist has doubts about the future of any reform that conservatives could find acceptable.
And if reform falls through, it could be a coup for Democrats, who’d like nothing more than to blame GOP hostility to immigrants.
“They’ll turn to some idiot Republican who gets up and says something particularly horrific and stupid,” he tells me. “I was out in Kansas where some Republican state legislator said, ‘You know, they shoot feral hogs out of helicopters,’ and suggested they do that for immigrants. I said, ‘That’s the kind of thing that damages the entire Republican party, when people talk like that.’”
“So some character says something like that, and then Obama points at them, some congressman from a monochromatic district or something, and Obama says, ‘See, that’s why it failed.’ When, in point of fact, the AFL-CIO torpedoed it,” he continues. “The AFL’s capable of torpedoing it. They will do that if they think they can blame the R’s.”
A source close to the ATR immigration work says Norquist frequently fields calls from state legislators who need rhetorical ammo to fight Arizona-type immigration laws, and he often hears about how they’re under pressure from NumbersUSA, the Center for Immigration Studies, and the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He gives daily political advice to pro-reform lawmakers nationwide. He says it’s key to make people aware that there’s a substantial sector of the conservative movement that wants more immigrants and comprehensive reform.
ATR has also worked to battle anti-comprehensive-immigration groups. For instance, Mario Lopez wrote a study called “Hijacking Immigration?” that appeared in the Human Life Review. It argues that there is a connection between some groups that are opposed to reform and the population-control movement. In short, Lopez argues that anti-comprehensive-reform forces are often also pro-abortion, pro-eugenics, and pro-sterilization. ATR’s leaders have put the Lopez study in front of every prominent social conservative leader they know.
ATR and Norquist are also in the loop on Gang of Eight talks. They get inside information on the status of the discussions, and they pass that information along to conservative leaders. They don’t directly shape the Senate negotiations, but they work to influence Republican messaging.
They’re trying to give Senator Marco Rubio’s office a little relief, at least in the public square and within the movement. Rubio’s staffers have run the conservative Republican pro-reform push almost singlehandedly in Congress, says a source close to ATR’s work, who argues that Rubio has been instrumental in nudging his colleagues behind the scenes. Norquist and his aides say they are the Rubio office’s comrades-in-arms. They don’t directly coordinate with Rubio’s office, but they do try to help shoulder the burden of pushing a controversial policy to a skeptical audience.
And in the meantime, ATR will keep hosting meetings on Fridays, a few floors above Twelfth Street. Norquist, as ever, is confident that soon enough conservatives and Senate Republicans will come around to his view, and that the end-of-week huddles may influence the immigration deliberations in way a similar, perhaps, to how the Wednesday meeting has influenced the fiscal debate.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.