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Conservative Rhetoric On Immigration May Soften

Many conservative faith leaders are among those calling for immigration reform. They joined government leaders on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to map out what that reform could look like, calling it a moral as well as economic issue.

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Conservative leaders from around the country are in Washington to push for immigration reform. Republicans were stung by the lack of support from Hispanics in last month's election. Now, these leaders argue immigration reform is not only a political imperative but a moral one. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: They describe themselves as a coalition of Bibles, badges and business - conservatives who want to reform the nation's immigration laws beyond what's been proposed by Republicans in Congress so far. Richard Land is head of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention's ethics and policy arm. He supports legalizing the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country. After background checks, fines and a probationary period, Land says they should get the chance to become citizens. He also supports the so-called DREAM Act for those brought here illegally as children.

RICHARD LAND: They've broken no law. They're innocent bystanders. They were brought here by their parents, and normally, we don't punish children for their parents' transgressions.

ROBBINS: For Richard Land, it's a biblical obligation.

LAND: Fair and just immigration reform is first and foremost a moral issue. God has a definite opinion about how we treat the strangers in our midst.

ROBBINS: Mark Curren is sheriff of Lake County, Illinois, outside Chicago. Curren says undocumented immigrants came lured by jobs and lax immigration enforcement. Once a hard-liner, the sheriff says it's time to deal with them humanely.

SHERIFF MARK CURREN: So a conversion took place for me from having been somebody who was anti - certainly illegal immigrant to somebody that recognizes the hard truth.

ROBBINS: Immigration reform is also political. Otherwise, the 250 or so conservatives and Republicans at this strategy session would not have met in Washington. Restaurant owner Brad Bailey came from Texas to tell Republican lawmakers that if they want conservatives to govern, they need to improve on the 27 percent Hispanic vote Mitt Romney got in November.

BRAD BAILEY: I've been up here the last couple of weeks since the election, and we're talking to congressmen and senators that would never even meet with us. Their staffs wouldn't meet with us. Now, they're wanting to sit down and talk to us, which is very, very encouraging.

ROBBINS: Now, Bailey says politicians on the right have to stop bashing immigrants publicly.

BAILEY: Privately, a lot of these elected officials and congressmen and senators will tell you, oh, I understand you can't deport 12 million people. I understand you can't do this. But then they get a microphone in their mouth at a rally, and they start spewing, you know, rhetoric. We need to hold their feet to the fire.

ROBBINS: Bailey says he needs immigrant labor to run his restaurant. Farmers say they need immigrants to pick crops. High-tech companies say they need educated immigrants to infuse new ideas. What about Americans who need jobs? One participant said many undocumented immigrants already have jobs. They're part of an underground economy, which doesn't contribute as much as it could to the nation's tax base. Yesterday in Dallas, the last Republican president to get a sizeable Hispanic vote spoke on immigrant contributions to the economy, but then as a former governor of Texas, a border state, George W. Bush was always moderate on this issue.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration, I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contribution of immigrants.

ROBBINS: The rhetoric appears to be softening on immigration at least this week. The test, of course, is how soon that may translate into a coalition of conservatives, moderates and progressives to actually pass legislation. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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