There’s one particular political issue Fergus Cullen, the former state GOP chairman, has spent a number of years thinking about — and he’s ready to do something about it.
The son of Irish immigrants, Cullen is going to tackle immigration reform. Cullen announced last week the launch of a new advocacy organization, Americans By Choice. He’s hoping the organization can spur immigration reform on at a national level.
“I am not new to this issue,” Cullen said. “This is something I’ve cared about and thought about seriously in terms of policy reform for many years.”
Cullen said he began thinking seriously about forming an organization in 2011, when there continued to be a void on immigration reform on the political right. Cullen describes the organization as center-right on americans-by-choice.org.
Cullen’s idea for reform includes three pieces. Number one, reform should include measures making it easier for talented professionals to come live and work in America legally. Number two, reform should involve creating a guest worker program for less-skilled laborers as a way to help meet the real needs of the American economy. And number three, reform should involve a “pragmatic and realistic approach to the millions of immigrants living amongst us who are undocumented.”
“We can’t pretend they aren’t here,” Cullen said. “We can’t pretend they don’t exist. We need to give them some form of legal status. It doesn’t mean it has to be citizenship, but some kind of legal status that acknowledges them as people.”
That type of approach isn’t lost on Republicans, Cullen said. He said people understand the system is broken. High-tech companies are having trouble getting the highly skilled engineers they need. Colleges are turning out people with advanced degrees who are foreign, people who would like to stay in this country but can’t get a visa to do so.
So why has it taken so long to reach some kind of reasonable agreement on this issue?
“In part, it’s politics,” Cullen said. “And that’s partly why Americans By Choice exists as well. Do you think Democrats would rather have a solution or would they rather have the issues? What I mean by that, for Democrats, it’s been to their political advantage to string this issue out. It makes the GOP look bad. It drives a wedge between new and recent American populations and GOP candidates, as we just saw in the last election.
“They’ve got the political incentive to let it go indefinitely. On the right, there are certainly some Republicans who are vocal, anti-immigrant, nativist, know-nothing, and who oppose immigrants of all kinds regardless of status. There are also certain Republicans who are afraid to take on that element within their own party.”
But for Cullen, he’d like to get beyond the politics. His board of directors is a bipartisan group of leaders all with New Hampshire ties, including George Bruno, a former state Democratic party chairman. Despite the New Hampshire connections, Cullen is trying to take a very national approach to the issue, he said.
“I’m persuaded many more recognize the system is broken and that it needs reform,” Cullen said. “We need to help bring the discussion forward.”
Developing an immigration reform plan would only have a positive impact politically on the GOP.
“We have to recognize that it has become politically imperative for Republicans to get this issue right,” Cullen said. “We cannot win elections when we’re depending on getting 120 percent of the white male vote.”
Part of the issue with immigration reform is a matter of perception. When it comes to immigration, people think low-skill, low-wage workers from Mexico. Cullen said there are highly skilled, highly trained, highly educated professionals and entrepreneurs who want to come to this country to develop their ideas and their businesses — all while creating jobs. It’s difficult for them to do so now.
Cullen has his sights set on reform sooner rather than later. He didn’t set up the group to talk to future potential presidential candidates. He’d like to get the ball rolling now.
In developing his plan, Cullen spoke with national leaders to get their advice. The response was positive, but the election took precedence this past year. Immigration became a losing political issue for Republicans in November. After the election, Cullen thought, “If not now, when? And if not me, who?”
Now it’s a matter of testing the group’s immigration theories in the donor community, and to rally like-minded individuals in this direction.
“I thought really seriously about how I could make a difference and where I should put my energy,” Cullen said. “I just kept coming back to this.”