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Immigration reform creating a rift among Tea Party senators

Don't Tread on Me Tea Party flagThey may have been considered Tea Party darlings when they were elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 and 2012, but a clear schism is emerging among the core leaders of the movement over the issue of comprehensive immigration reform in the United States.

The divide began back in January when two Tea Party senators, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), both joined the bipartisan “Gang of Eight.” The group, which also includes Republican Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), put forth their plan for immigration reform last month.

“Conservatives aren’t anti-immigrant—conservatives are pro-legal immigration,” Rubio wrote in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last week. “What the American people deserve are reforms that make sure the laws are enforced and ensure that the country doesn’t face this problem again. Conservatism has always been about reforming government and solving problems, and that’s why the conservative movement should lead on immigration reform.”

Meanwhile, other Republican Tea Party Senators also elected during the 2010 and 2012 cycles – Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah – are adamantly working to kill the Gang of Eight’s bill because it includes a pathway to amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

“I believe that any real comprehensive immigration reform must implement strong national security protections,” Paul wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last month. “The facts emerging in the Boston Marathon bombing have exposed a weakness in our current system. If we don’t use this debate as an opportunity to fix flaws in our current system, flaws made even more evident last week, then we will not be doing our jobs.”

Paul had previously developed his own plan for immigration reform, which he outlined in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce back in March. 

The growing schism was further highlighted by the release Monday of a new study on the cost of amnesty for illegal immigrants conducted by scholars at the Heritage Foundation. Jim DeMint, the foundation’s new president and a former senator from South Carolina, remarked during a press conference discussing the study Monday that providing amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States will cost the country upwards of $6.3 trillion in money that it doesn’t have.

“We contend…that amnesty is unfair to those who come here lawfully and those who are waiting, it will cost the American taxpayer trillions of dollars over the next several decades, and it will make our immigration problems worse,” DeMint said.

It’s fitting that DeMint is one of the most prominent non-elected officials jumping into the immigration debate at this time. His former PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fundwas largely responsible for electing these Tea Party Senators to Congress over the past few years, and up until his resignation from Congress in December he was essentially the de facto leader of the group. 

Further adding to the discord is the fact that the American public does not seem to be sold on any of the immigration proposals floating around Washington. A new Rasmussen Reports poll found that only 30 percent of Americans believe that the federal government will actually secure the border and prevent future illegal immigrants from entering the U.S.

The first real test for the Tea Party movement in the Senate may come as early as this week, when the Senate Judiciary Committee begins its markup on the bill Thursday. Graham, Cruz, Flake and Lee are all members of the committee. Reid also hopes to bring the bill to a floor vote before the end of the month.

In the meantime, the only thing conservatives can really do is sit back and hope that the apparent split over immigration reform doesn’t hurt the party’s chances of regaining the chamber next year or the White House in 2016.

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