By Arian Campo-Flores, WSJ
When Rev. John Killian talks to his parishioners and others in Alabama about the presidential race, he says they raise one issue above all: immigration.
“I really think that’s the red-meat issue right now,” said Mr. Killian, pastor of Maytown Baptist Church, near Birmingham, and former chaplain of the Alabama Republican Party. “People are very frustrated, unemployment is rising and yet we persist in hiring overseas people.”
Immigration, which took center stage in the GOP race Thursday after Pope Francis said GOP candidate Donald Trump’s positions on the issue make him “not Christian,” promises to continue stirring up GOP voters and candidates as the presidential contest barrels toward the March 1 primary states. Concerns about undocumented workers and refugees run deep in a cluster of those states in the South. As a result, Republican presidential contenders likely will continue espousing hard-line positions on immigration matters, potentially hurting the party among Hispanic and Asian voters in the general election.
It is the Republican establishment’s nightmare. “It’s mandatory to reach new voters of all ethnic stripes,” said Mario H. Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy group that seeks to draw more Latinos to the GOP. “Any candidate who rejects that is ultimately going to be on the losing side of things.”
After GOP nominee Mitt Romney lost to President Barack Obama in 2012, a study commissioned by the Republican National Committee faulted the GOP candidate’s call for “self-deportation” as a solution to illegal immigration.
That comment and others turned off many Latino and Asian voters, who may not view immigration as a top-of-mind issue but can react viscerally if they perceive immigrants are being attacked. Mr. Romney garnered only 27% of the U.S. Hispanic vote and 26% of the Asian vote.
The RNC study urged the party to back immigration reform and strike a more inclusive tone with minorities. Yet on the campaign trail in the past year, Mr. Trump has said many Mexicans crossing the border are “rapists” who are bringing drugs and crime into the U.S.; Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has ruled out any form of legal status for undocumented immigrants; and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has disowned the immigration-reform bill he helped craft in 2013.
On Thursday on CNN, Mr. Rubio said that he has said he’d get rid of President Barack Obama‘s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and that he will. “I will on my first day in office get rid of it because it’s unconstitutional,” he said.
A November 2015 poll of Hispanic registered voters in 14 battleground states conducted by Latino Decisions, which does work for pro-immigrant groups, found that 69% of respondents said Mr. Trump’s comments about immigrants, including his call to deport 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, gave them a very unfavorable view of the Republican Party.
Ahead of the Feb. 20 primary in South Carolina, the candidates have strived to outdo each other in talking tough on immigration, while attacking their rivals as potentially untrustworthy on the issue.
A similar dynamic could play out in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee—all part of the so-called SEC primary on March 1. Alabama passed one of the U.S.’s strictest laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration in 2011, parts of which courts later invalidated. Lawmakers at the time said the bill was aimed at making life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they would leave—and many immigrants did.
Georgia also passed a strict measure in 2011 that authorized police to check the immigration status of some suspects and sought to deter businesses from hiring undocumented workers. Courts later struck down parts of that measure as well.
Some states in the South experienced some of the largest percentage increases of undocumented people in the U.S. in the 1990s and 2000s. Those populations soared approximately twelvefold in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee from 1990 to 2009, according to the Pew Research Center. Though the numbers have declined in some states in recent years, alarm over the influx persists among many in the region.
Further inflaming the issue: the recent controversy over plans to allow some Syrian refugees into the U.S., a move some fear could open the way for terrorists to enter the country. Governors in states including Alabama and Texas, which also votes on March 1, have vowed to block refugees’ admission.
“People here are literally scared to death,” said Republican state Rep. Mike Holmes of Alabama, a Cruz supporter. “We’re losing control of our borders.”
In previous campaign stops in the South, the GOP candidates have highlighted their stances on immigration. In Mobile, Ala., last year, Mr. Trump welcomed on stage Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican known for his hard-line positions on illegal immigration. In Nashville, Tenn., in December, Mr. Cruz promised to build a secure wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, as did Mr. Trump, and end health-care benefits for undocumented immigrants.
Expect to hear similar pronouncements in the weeks ahead.