When lawmakers from Ireland paid a visit to Washington last fall to meet with congressional Republicans about the always-contentious issue of immigration, it was hard to tell which group was from the U.S. and which group was from the Emerald Isle, at least based on their names.

Ryan, of course, was a vice presidential candidate and McCarthy is the powerful House majority whip.  Mulvaney, meanwhile, raised his profile quite a bit this week when he held a town hall meeting in his South Carolina district with constituents who are lobbying him to get to work on immigration reform legislation.

Mulvaney conducted the meeting by and large in (according to reports) passable Spanish.

“I am more than willing to have a discussion about allowing at least part of the 11 million people here illegally to have some type of status,” Mulvaney later told The New York Times. “I’m just disappointed that more people in my party don’t want to do that.”

In the past, Mulvaney’s Irish American colleagues, Ryan and McCarthy, have also said they support some kind of immigration reform.  Long Island Irish American GOP Congressman Peter King went even further last week, openly supporting a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants.

Could it be that the Irish American Republicans -- their own immigrant roots just a few generations past, which they will surely be celebrating on March 17 -- are trying to forge a new path for their party on the issue of immigration?

Not quite.  But even if they were, rather than solve the problem in a way that pays honor to America’s long history of immigration, what they are actually doing is taking sides in what is turning into a civil war for the soul of the Republican Party.

On the one hand you have semi-brave souls like Irish Catholic Mulvaney, who has met lawmakers from Ireland as well as representatives from the Ancient Order of Hibernians to discuss immigration.

He has also served on the Congressional Subcommittee on Immigration, and does not favor building a really high wall to keep all the damn foreigners out of the U.S.  Which is what quite a few folks in Mulvaney’s district -- and in America -- still want to do, just like the KKK and the Know Nothing party wanted to keep Mulvaney’s ancestors out 75 or 150 years ago.

“Like Mr. Mulvaney, a number of Republicans are moving toward the view that the immigration system needs fixing, and that 11.7 million illegal immigrants will not be deported and need a path to legal status,” The New York Times noted.

Perhaps it isn’t a love for America’s immigrant past that is prodding Republicans, but instead pure politics.

The Republicans, after all, are hoping to win control of the Senate, and their past anti-immigrant impulses have hurt them with Hispanic voters.

But even if some Republicans are (very slowly, very tentatively) moving away from their worst nativist impulses, others still remain hell-bent on not only wishing away the realities of the 21st century global marketplace, but also plunging the Republican party into civil war.

“If Mick Mulvaney would come out tomorrow to do immigration reform, somebody from the Tea Party would challenge him,” Karen Martin, a founder of a Tea Party group in Mulvaney’s district, told The Times, later adding, “It doesn’t matter if you feel sorry for those (immigrants) ... Right now you won’t get anywhere because people are terrified that their families won’t have a house or a job next year.”

Never mind that almost any objective study of immigration shows that it has a positive economic impact.  The scarier thing here is how gleeful this Tea Partier seems to be at the prospect of challenging Mulvaney if he dares to entertain any ideas related to immigration reform. 

These fringe elements continue to drag the GOP to the far right, and this won’t stop until Republicans prove themselves brave enough to confront the Tea Party crowd.

Otherwise, both sides will lose this civil war, leaving the Republican Party outdated, marginalized and irrelevant.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com)