WASHINGTON - When he took the House floor two years ago to speak about undocumented immigrants, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said "illegals" were draining the health-care system, and lamented that those with an "anchor baby" could get welfare benefits.
By this year, Poe's language had changed considerably. He spoke of a "broken" system that can be exploited both by "people who are coming here to better themselves" and those who enter to commit crimes.
"Many people come into the United States the right way - they never go home," Poe said at a Feb. 5 House Judiciary Committee hearing. "I mean, why would they?"
The shift is just one example of how the language of the immigration debate has moderated along with the political tides. A growing group of Republicans is adopting a softer tone on the issue with the recognition that their old rhetoric, as much as their policy positions, alienated Hispanic voters and undermined their message.
That means phrases such as "amnesty" for "illegals" or "aliens" and "anchor babies," a reference to U.S.-born children of immigrants lacking proper authorization, are mostly out.
Terms such as "undocumented immigrants," for those without legal standing, providing a way to obtain "earned legal status," and fixing a "broken system" are in.
Republican strategists and some lawmakers pressing for immigration changes have been privately lobbying lawmakers to clean up their rhetoric as Congress begins considering a revision of immigration laws.
Words alone won't be sufficient. Republican officials argue that if they are to win presidential and more statewide races, they must act to build consensus within their party for changing immigration laws. Even those who don't embrace the legislative effort recognize that less vitriolic language is critical to making amends with Hispanic voters while reassuring law-and-order-minded Republicans who have opposed previous immigration overhauls.
"Do use 'undocumented immigrant' when referring to those here without documentation," admonishes a list of "do's and don'ts" distributed to lawmakers by the Republican-aligned Hispanic Leadership Network. "Don't use the word 'illegals' or "aliens,' or the term 'anchor baby.' "
Republicans are also counseled to accentuate practical solutions rather than complaints when talking about their stances on immigration-law changes.
"Do acknowledge that 'our current immigration system is broken and we need to fix it,' " the memo advises.
A growing group of Republicans is adopting a softer tone on the issue with the recognition that their old rhetoric, as much as their policy positions, alienated Hispanic voters and undermined their message.