LITTLETON, Colo. — It was little surprise when freshman Rep. Mike Coffman in 2010 voted against a bill to grant citizenship to some young illegal immigrants. After all, the Republican Marine Corps veteran had just won the seat in Congress formerly held by firebrand Rep. Tom Tancredo, who had pushed the party to take a harder stance against illegal immigration.
The bill, known as the DREAM Act, died in the Senate.
Now Coffman has changed course. He has introduced legislation to let unauthorized immigrants brought into the country as children to earn citizenship if they serve in the military. And he spoke hopefully about an immigration overhaul that a bipartisan group of senators outlined last week.
Since the November elections, many other Republicans nationwide have tempered their tone on immigration — if not reversed course completely — after years of tacking right to appeal to grass-roots activists who dominate GOP primaries. On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor became the latest high-profile Republican to shift gears. A leader of the conservative caucus and previous opponent of the DREAM Act, Cantor called for allowing illegal immigrants brought here as children to become citizens.
All this suggests that the Republican Party seems to have gotten the message after its shellacking last fall. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won only 27 percent support from Hispanics and even less from Asians. And an AP-GFK poll last month showed 62 percent of voters wanted to let otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants eventually become citizens, up 12 percentage points from 2010.
During the GOP presidential primaries, Romney wooed the party's right flank by echoing their rhetoric on immigration and advocating "self-deportation," or making life in the U.S. so miserable for illegal immigrants they would voluntarily return home. His campaign staff later said they regretted the sharp turn because it alienated minority voters. Now Republicans are trying to get them back.
"All of their campaign consultants are telling them that the end is near if they don't change," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates tighter immigration restrictions. He added that Republicans have long-favored a narrower version of the DREAM Act — formally, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — which would legalize the status of people brought here illegally as children who graduate from college or serve in the military.
It's far from clear, however, whether softer stances will translate into Republican support broad enough to overhaul the immigration system, including a pathway to citizenship for the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
The shift has been particularly dramatic in the West, where the most recent wave of illegal immigration began in the 1990s and the GOP's tough response helped drive Hispanic votes to newly ascendant Democrats. In California, a handful of GOP state legislators joined Democratic colleagues at a news conference last week to back a pathway to citizenship in any immigration overhaul. In Nevada, where immigrant votes have given Democrats a lopsided edge in recent elections, the state Republican Party last week endorsed legalizing the status of unauthorized immigrants.
Colorado, where Hispanics comprised 14 percent of the electorate in November, was solidly red at the beginning of the past decade, when Republicans pushed aggressive measures against illegal immigrants and some Democrats joined them. Since then, it has twice helped elect President Barack Obama. Democrats have controlled the state Legislature for three of the last four elections. Hispanics also helped defeat tea party favorite Ken Buck in his 2010 challenge to Sen. Michael Bennet.
Now Buck, well-known for his aggressive enforcement of immigration laws as Weld County district attorney, has joined The Colorado Compact, a coalition of politicians, business and community groups that backs a "sensible path forward" for some illegal immigrants.
After years of blocking in-state tuition for illegal immigrants at state colleges and universities, some Republican state lawmakers have decided to support the measure. And congressmen like Coffman are taking a warmer stance toward the idea of a broader immigration overhaul — even though it remains unclear whether they will ultimately vote for the goal of immigration rights activists and Obama — citizenship.
Colorado State Sen. Greg Brophy has kept quiet as he's voted against in-state tuition in recent years. He's been thinking of the high school students he meets in his rural district who are bright, ambitious and here without authorization. Now he supports the bill.
"It tugs at your heart," Brophy said. "I'm positive I'm not alone in it, given the emails I've gotten."
Immigration advocates are heartened.
"There's a sea change that's happening in our politics," Bennet, one of the senators who worked on the latest bipartisan immigration proposal, told backers in Denver last week. "This was an issue that was litigated during this presidential campaign. Republicans and Democrats alike believe that big numbers of people in this country want to get this finished."
But it's unclear whether that will translate into enough Republicans supporting a pathway to citizenship. Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner who is seen as one of the state's few GOP stars, spoke forcefully after the election about the need to appeal more to minorities. "The tone is catching up to where Republicans have been for the last couple of years," Gardner said in an interview. But he, too, still balks at the idea of citizenship.
He said Congress must first secure the border before discussing citizenship. "If you address that first, we can have a conversation down the road."
Brophy said many Republicans are honestly wrestling with a difficult personal issue. He noted that one newly elected state senator who voted for the in-state tuition bill in committee last week has already been targeted for a possible primary challenge.