AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — National Republican activist and powerbroker Grover Norquist told a conservative forum Wednesday that his party is not anti-immigrant, even though many people have been led to believe so by a small, vocal group of extremists.
Speaking in Austin, his sentiments came hours after a pair of Democrats in the Texas House called on the Republican-controlled state Legislature to pass a resolution urging leaders in Washington to enact nationwide immigration reform as the White House and Congress propose new paths to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally.
Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform, but lately has advocated for overhauling the nation's immigration laws. He said the majority of Republicans are with him — not the extremists.
"We've had some very loud voices, unnecessarily angry voices, that have been too loud and the reason that they've been loud and been heard is that the other people, the people here, have been silent," Norquist said, referring to business and religious leaders who gathered at a Baptist church for the forum.
Norquist said the party got saddled with the wrong message because of radio talk show hosts and TV commentators who "get described as very conservative."
"That's why I think our presidential candidates, even though in their heart many of them weren't there, started sounding pretty goofy on immigration during the last election," he said.
Norquist said Republicans relate to Hispanic voters on social issues such as opposing abortion, but "you never get to the second part of the conversation until you've gotten across that you're not threatening to deport their friends, their family, their relatives, their co-workers."
Texas has a 1,200-mile border with Mexico and nearly 2 million illegal immigrants, and many conservatives in the state have a softer view on immigration than some of their colleagues elsewhere. In fact, Gov. Rick Perry was criticized while seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2011 for his support of offering cheaper, in-state university tuition to illegal immigrants who attended high school in Texas.
Brad Bailey, of the Texas Immigration Solution, which seeks market-based immigration reforms, noted Wednesday that the Texas Republican Party last year softened its platform on immigration, acknowledging that mass deportation isn't possible and calling for a guest worker program.
"A lot of people are interested that Arizona is taking one route and Texas is taking another," Bailey said, referring to that state's strict immigration policies. "Both are conservative, red states."
Norquist also broke with some Texas Republicans — including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — who have long called for securing the U.S.-Mexico border before tackling immigration reform.
"The answer from the standpoint of people who care about liberty is: If you've got a stupid law, you change it," he said. "You don't enforce it first. You change it and make it a reasonable law. And then you can enforce a reasonable law."
He added that "Texas' voice on making sure the center right movement, conservatives, Republicans, Americans are seen properly on this issue is extremely important."
State lawmakers may get their chance to do that if they back Wednesday's resolution introduced by State Reps. Rafael Anchia and Ana Hernandez Luna.
Both are hoping for GOP support, and Luna said the head of the House Republican Caucus told her the party's lawmakers will not propose any more immigration bills than the small handful already filed this session.
Anchia said the resolution largely supports the reforms put forth by a bipartisan U.S. Senate panel last month, which include a provision for border-state leaders to essentially declare when the border is sufficiently secured.
During the last legislative session two years ago, Texas Republicans filed more than 50 contentious bills on immigration. But Anchia said the tone in the Capitol has changed.
"People want to do something positive in immigration after the last couple legislative sessions where we've heard a lot of negative rhetoric from the Republican caucus," he said. "Many in the caucus were frustrated by that, they're tired of that and now they want to do something positive on this issue."
Associated Press Paul J. Weber in Austin contributed to this report.