CNN’s Peter Hamby reports that RNC chair Michael Steele called for a comprehensive immigration reform effort from Republicans in a private meeting with Hispanic Republicans last Friday.   Using video taken of the speech by an attendee, Hamby notes that Steele emphasized the need for the GOP to prioritize families in its policies, a position that would put Steele at odds with many conservative Republicans:

In a private meeting with Hispanic Republican activists last week, Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele called for a comprehensive immigration policy that puts families first – a stance at odds with some conservatives in his party who see border security and enforcement as top priorities.

Steele also said Republican leaders are sensitive to “the perception of racism in law” following the signing of a tough new immigration bill in Arizona. …

“If we want to have a comprehensive policy that is uniform around the nation, then the federal government has got to step up,” Steele told the activists. “I look forward to our Republican leadership putting on the table good solid efforts to create the kind of reform that takes in mind first and foremost the family, that recognizes that this is not a nameless composition.

“That there are moms and dads, grandmas and granddads, and children, generations, that are affected by the decisions that are made in Washington D.C.,” he continued. “So my promise is to make sure that that the family is the focus as well. Not the just the statistics that show up on paper.”

In one sense, Steele has to frame the argument in a way that appeals to a broad range of potential voters. That’s his job, after all, and Steele didn’t mention any policy specifics in this speech. He wants Hispanics to stay within the GOP, which was the entire intent of the meeting. Steele promised that the Republicans would offer their version of comprehensive immigration reform soon, and that it would differentiate itself from the nakedly political gambit offered by Barack Obama and the Democrats in this midterm cycle.

Still, one has to suspect that Steele held that meeting in private for good reason. He’s already created enough problems for himself with the activist conservative base of the party, which wants an enforcement-first approach to immigration reform. It’s possible to both enforce the law and be sensitive to families, but the priority for conservatives is enforcement of border security and visa controls now. Flipping those won’t endear Steele to the base, and could backfire on his outreach efforts.

Meanwhile, Rasmussen polled on the most explosive aspect of the Arizona legislation, and found it less controversial than thought among likely voters:

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer last week signed a new law into effect that authorizes local police to stop and verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey finds that 60% of voters nationwide favor such a law, while 31% are opposed.

Seventy-seven percent (77%) of Republicans support the law along with 62% of voters not affiliated with either major party. Democratic voters are evenly divided on the measure.

At the same time, however, 58% of all voters are at least somewhat concerned that “efforts to identify and deport illegal immigrants will also end up violating the civil rights of some U.S. citizens.” That figure includes 29% who are Very Concerned about possible civil rights violations.

In other words, the takeaway here is that Americans want a tougher approach to enforcement as long as it doesn’t violate civil rights. That’s about as surprising as “water is wet.” Immigration reform is somewhat like ObamaCare — it’s designed to appeal to a narrow base, not the overall electorate. In a bad economy, a push for liberalization of immigration controls is about as popular as higher taxes, and for similar reasons.

What may be surprising is the widespread consensus on these questions.  Voters believe that national security and border control take priority over fixing the status of “undocumented workers,” whether they be Republicans (77%), independents (78%), or … Democrats (51%/38%).  On giving the police authority to stop people on the basis of suspected immigration violations, as many Democrats support it as oppose it (43% each), while 62% of independents also back it.  Black voters, whom Michael Steele invoked as regular victims of profiling, support the idea of police stops 63%/33%.  “Other,” comprising Hispanic and Asian voters, only narrowly oppose it, 44% with 38% approving.

This seems like something approaching political consensus.  We shouldn’t be afraid of pushing an enforcement-first agenda, as long as we make sure that civil rights get protected.