Tea Partier Steve Southerland warms up to idea of immigration reform

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After months of decrying efforts towards immigration reform by calling it “amnesty,” a few Tea Party legislators are beginning to warm up to the idea of a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants.

Florida U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, who represents the areas surrounding Panama City and Tallahassee, voiced support for immigration reform, a sign that it still has a chance with the GOP-ruled House of Representatives. He joins a handful of Republicans who are indicating additional support during the August adjournment of Congress.

“We have to address it,” Southerland told the Miami Herald. “It’s a moral issue.”

Throughout the legislative break, Miami GOP Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart met with fellow lawmakers, including Southerland, to persuade them to reconsider immigration reform.  But the credit for changing Southerland’s viewpoint was a recent speech in Tallahassee by college graduate Juan Espinoza.

Espinoza came to the U.S. when he was four, earned two college degrees and wants to stay here. However, he is not a citizen nor is he in the country illegally. Espinoza is in a difficult position, and asked Southerland if he supports the path to citizenship.

At the time, Southerland was uncommitted, but now that has changed. However, before he commits to any reform legislation, Southerland wants a clear line between young people like Espinoza, brought here as children, and older immigrants entering the country in violation of the law.

Southerland also bristles at the term “comprehensive immigration reform,” saying that “comprehensive” means to him a compromise to accept “a bunch of bad things.”

To pitch the idea of reform to conservatives, including the Tea Party, supporters are focusing on the “three B’s” — Bibles, badges and business.  They concentrate on legal, moral and economic arguments, which all appeal to Southerland, who was a businessperson before he was elected to Congress. 

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.