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Originally published May 9, 2013 at 12:07 AM | Page modified May 9, 2013 at 12:09 AM

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For many Republicans, immigration is risky subject

Rodney Vandenberg was the first to greet Republican Sen. Deb Fischer when she dropped by the Falls City's Chamber of Commerce office last week. He wasted no time bracing her about immigration, an issue that a Senate committee takes up Thursday in the form of sweeping overhaul legislation.

Associated Press

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FALLS CITY, Neb. —

Rodney Vandenberg was the first to greet Republican Sen. Deb Fischer when she dropped by the Falls City's Chamber of Commerce office last week. He wasted no time bracing her about immigration, an issue that a Senate committee takes up Thursday in the form of sweeping overhaul legislation.

"There can be no shortcuts to citizenship for anyone," the retired banker and former mayor said, gripping Fischer's hand with both of his.

"My views have not changed," she replied, assuring him of her opposition.

That's what Vandenberg wanted to hear, but it's an ominous message for Republican leaders who believe that making the party dominant nationally hinges on accepting a more welcoming immigration policy, one that would attract more Hispanic voters. A bill that would make it easier for people living in the country illegally to obtain legal status is being debated by a Senate committee.

Key Republicans are supporting the idea, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, likely 2016 presidential candidates, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party's vice presidential nominee in 2012.

But while the shift to a less hard-edged position on immigration might make good political sense for the GOP nationally, with the nation's Hispanic population growing steadily, it makes little sense locally for many of the Republican lawmakers who will be asked for vote for it. Their political fortunes depend on conservative white voters who have strong feelings about people slipping across the border to live in this country.

The gap between these two perspectives could mean trouble for a sweeping new immigration overhaul. A bill may emerge from the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats who are largely supportive, but it would face an uncertain fate in the conservative, GOP-controlled House, where more members do not have to answer to Latino voters.

A swath of two dozen states in the middle and southern parts of the country make up the Republican heartland, overwhelmingly electing Republicans to the Senate and House. Despite the recent Hispanic population surge, that region remains more than 80 percent white, and whites account for more than 90 percent of the votes that successful Republican candidates there receive, according to exit polls. In the Senate, 22 of the 45 GOP members come from states where minorities are still below 30 percent of the population.

The demographic picture is much different in other places, with the Hispanic population in the U.S. up 65 percent since 2000. Republican candidates are struggling in some of them, and Republican Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 presidential race was attributed in part to his receiving only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.

"At some point Republicans have to make a decision to move forward or continue to live with their heads in the sand," said Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster and campaign adviser.

But for Midwestern members like Fischer, the strategists' arguments are countered again and again by the voices of her supporters, many of them rural conservatives, who elected her last year over Democrat Bob Kerrey by a margin of 58 to 42 percent.

"What I hear from most Nebraskans is the same," she told Vandenberg.

On her trip home during last week's congressional recess, Fischer traveled the rolling farm roads of the southeastern part of her state, meeting with small town residents and hearing them out.

"What's important is following the laws of the land," said Mary Gerdes, a farmer from tiny Johnson who drove the hour to see Fischer in Falls City. "Marco Rubio and John McCain don't speak for me, even though we're all Republicans."

Local Republican officials in the area also haven't adopted a new line.

By accepting those who entered illegally, "We're just permitting people to scoff at the law," said Nathan Bartels, a farmer and chairman of the Johnson County Republicans. "Should we accommodate rape and murder? Breaking the law is breaking the law."

Fischer, a rancher and conservative state senator before her election last year, says she will strictly oppose giving the immigrants a "pathway to citizenship." She said she does not support the provision in the bill co-sponsored Rubio, McCain and a bi-partisan group of six other senators.

She also said the bill's provision to clamp down on the illicit flow over the U.S.-Mexican border - which is aimed at making the measure more palatable to conservative Republicans - is inadequate.

"How do you monitor it, to verify that it is truly happening?" Fischer said after a meeting in Nebraska City. "I don't know that the gang of eight, if they've looked at that."

The immigrant population is more visible in Nebraska, particularly in the agriculture industry. Not far from Bartels' farm, the Smart Chicken plant in Tecumseh employs about 150 workers, many of whom are Hispanic.

But at Nebraska City's Lied Lodge, the hotel workers - an occupation that draws immigrants elsewhere - is mostly white and English-speaking.

Outreach to Hispanic voters is not yet a pressing concern. In the 2010 census, the state's population was 82 percent white and 5.7 percent Hispanic.

Other Nebraska Republicans sound the same pessimistic note about accommodating immigrants. Gov. Dave Heineman, who is weighing a campaign for Nebraska's other seat, said, "We're all opposed to amnesty."

In neighboring Iowa, the Hispanic population is more apparent. In Iowa, Hispanic workers fill the state's numerous meatpacking plants. In Republican-leaning Utah, the state's fruit and vegetable industries thrive with migrant labor.

But Republican members of Congress there are conscious of the strong feelings of their core supporters. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley has said he's skeptical about aspects of the bill. Utah Sen. Mike Lee said the bill lumps too many facets of immigration together.

In most of these Republican states, GOP candidates worry more about challenges from ultra-conservatives on the right flank of their party than from Democrat opponents.

"There's no doubt in certain Republican populations, people are saying `No way,' " said GOP pollster Strimple.

Susan Gumm, who drove 60 miles from Omaha to Nebraska City to see Fischer last week, said Republicans who would soften the nation's immigration laws to curry favor with new voters will alienate the voters they have.

"They will destroy the Republican Party," she said.

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Associated Press writer Margery Beck contributed from Omaha, Neb.

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