• G.O.P. Congressman in South Carolina Takes a Risk With Amnesty for Illegals

    G.O.P. Congressman in South Carolina Takes a Risk With a Foray Into Immigration

    Even more surprising to the spellbound crowd at the First Baptist Church, Mr. Mulvaney said he and other conservative House Republicans were open to some kind of legal status, although not a path to citizenship, for many immigrants living in the country illegally.

    Representative Mick Mulvaney, a Republican, said he and other House Republicans were open to some kind of legal status for immigrants in the country illegally. Mike Belleme for The New York Times

    GAFFNEY, S.C. — After the sterling conservative voting record he has established during three years in Washington, Representative Mick Mulvaney, a Republican, can take a few political risks in his South Carolina district, one of the most conservative in this reliably Republican state. This week he did just that.

    Mr. Mulvaney convened a town-hall meeting in this country town on the troublesome issue of immigration, with an audience of Latinos. He held forth for an hour, parsing policy and answering questions about the prospects for immigration legislation in the House — entirely in Spanish.

    FEB. 21, 2014

    Even more surprising to the spellbound crowd at the First Baptist Church, Mr. Mulvaney said he and other conservative House Republicans were open to some kind of legal status, although not a path to citizenship, for many immigrants living in the country illegally.

    But he also said it would not happen this year: Republicans just do not trust President Obama to carry out any law they might enact.

    “We are afraid that if we reach an agreement,” the congressman said, making the most of the Spanish skills he acquired years ago in college, “he will take the parts he likes and he won’t take the parts that he doesn’t like.”

    The town of Gaffney in South Carolina, where Mr. Mulvaney spoke at a town-hall-style meeting to discuss immigration, in Spanish, with Hispanics. Mike Belleme for The New York Times

    The politics of immigration are gradually shifting in South Carolina and some other Southern states, where not long ago most conservatives passionately rejected legalization as amnesty that rewarded lawbreakers. Like Mr. Mulvaney, a number of Republicans are moving toward the view that the immigration system needs fixing, and that 11.7 million illegal immigrants will not be deported and need a path to legal status.

    But Mr. Mulvaney first rode to office on the Tea Party wave in 2010, ousting a long-serving Democrat, and he knows his voters. If he moves too far too fast, he could awaken their ire.

    “If Mick Mulvaney would come out tomorrow to do immigration reform, somebody from the Tea Party would challenge him,” said Karen Martin, a founder of the Tea Party group in Spartanburg, on the edge of Mr. Mulvaney’s district.

    Ms. Martin said she campaigned for Mr. Mulvaney during his first race and keeps a vigilant eye on his work in Washington. She said she and many other South Carolina voters feared an influx of newly legalized immigrants into the state’s lagging labor market.

    “It doesn’t matter if you feel sorry for those people,” Ms. Martin said of immigrants without legal status. “Right now you won’t get anywhere because people are terrified that their families won’t have a house or a job next year.”

    The mixed mood in South Carolina was reflected in recent start-and-stop politics on Capitol Hill. Last month, House Republican leaders presented their principles for reform, with a series of measures to toughen enforcement and border security and then to allow illegal immigrants to “get right with the law.” While some Republicans flatly rejected legalization, many others said the principles might be right but the timing was wrong. Within days, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said it was unlikely the House would move on immigration this year.

    Mr. Mulvaney, a former state senator who had not focused particularly on immigration until he won federal office, is picking a careful course through that minefield. The principles were “an important first step,” he said in an interview (in English).

    A large, mostly Hispanic crowd gathered this week to listen to Mr. Mulvaney. Mike Belleme for The New York Times

    “I am more than willing to have a discussion about allowing at least part of the 11 million people here illegally to have some type of status,” he said. “I’m just disappointed that more people in my party don’t want to do that.”

    He put the blame on Mr. Obama. Conservatives, who despise the president’s health care law, were outraged by changes he made through executive action as it was being rolled out. “If I worry he would selectively enforce the law, it throws a cold shower on the whole immigration discussion,” Mr. Mulvaney said.

    Mr. Mulvaney appears to be comfortably safe in his seat, after redistricting in 2012 made it more favorable to Republicans. Facing no Republican primary challenger so far this year, he has done little campaigning.

    But pressure for immigration reform is increasing from several sides. The town of Gaffney is well known to drivers on Route 85, the main thoroughfare through the region, because of a giant peach that towers over the highway — an unsubtle reminder that Georgia is not the only state growing that fruit.

    Growers, farmers, manufacturers and hotelkeepers are becoming more outspoken with Mr. Mulvaney about their urgent need for legal immigrant workers for low-wage jobs.

    Evangelical Christian clergy members have also called for action, including the Hispanic pastors who brought busloads of parishioners to the town hall. Mr. Mulvaney was impressed, saying the meeting was among the most well-attended of some 40 he has held.

    “We are not insignificant,” said Victor Prieto, a Southern Baptist minister and university professor, noting the surge in Hispanic population in the area in the last decade.

    A giant peach perched atop a water tower in Gaffney offers a reminder of the region’s fruit production. Mike Belleme for The New York Times

    Several Latinos at the meeting overcame their misgivings to admit to Mr. Mulvaney that they did not have legal papers and feared being separated from their families by deportation. One man, Wilson Ramírez, upbraided him for putting off the debate this year. “Why is there such a lack of love between the two parties, Republicans and Democrats?” Mr. Ramirez asked, to applause from the audience.

    Mr. Mulvaney said Republicans were growing confident that they would regain the majority in the Senate in November elections, allowing them to move ahead with immigration legislation to their liking.

    When Mr. Mulvaney’s foray into Spanish made the front page of the Spartanburg Herald Journal the next morning, aides waited nervously for the local reaction. But there was no vitriol and even some praise in the comments on the paper’s website.

    Yet there are divisions that simmer among South Carolina Republicans that Mr. Mulvaney cannot ignore. Some party leaders said they would push him to pick up the pace in Washington.

    “We have to show the Hispanics at least a crack in the door,” said John Major, chairman of the Cherokee County Republican Party. He said resistance to legalization was declining among the state’s voters.

    “People are tired of this problem,” he said. “They want to move to the next phase.”

    But others said Mr. Mulvaney was prudent to move slowly. In South Carolina, the debate is overshadowed by the travails of Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican who was one of eight authors of a sweeping immigration bill that passed the Senate last year, which included a pathway to citizenship. He now faces five primary challengers.

    Bruce Carroll, chairman of Carolina Conservatives United, a group working to unseat Mr. Graham, said the problem was not the legalization part of the Senate bill, but the bill’s vast scope and bipartisan compromises.

    “People are just kind of exhausted with Washington right now,” Mr. Carroll said. “There is a general dismay that an important issue like immigration would be put through that sausage-maker in a year like this.”

    Ms. Martin, the Tea Party organizer, said she was certain Mr. Mulvaney would not risk provoking her organization’s wrath by pushing an overhaul anytime soon.

    “Mick Mulvaney is just not going to come out for immigration reform,” she said matter-of-factly. “He is not going to push for something people in his district see as a threat.”

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