GOP candidates unsure of best way to handle immigration policy
Republicans are girding for a 2016 campaign debate with Democrats on immigration, but their presidential candidates are still unsure of the best way to handle an issue that could make or break their party’s ability to win back the White House.
Many of the contenders are equivocating or openly shifting their positions on the central question of how to handle the millions of people who are in the U.S. illegally, which Hillary Clinton this week sought to make a defining issue.
While Mrs. Clinton forcefully backed creating a pathway to citizenship for many illegal immigrants, the Republican field, by contrast, features a cacophony of voices.
The jockeying underscores how immigration remains one of the biggest challenges facing Republicans in the 2016 presidential campaign, as they navigate the conflicting pressures of a primary contest, which entails wooing conservatives who generally oppose liberalizing immigration law, and those of the general election, where the GOP will be courting Hispanics who want a more open policy.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush once backed allowing a path to citizenship but has now stepped back and talks instead of offering legal status. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was an architect of a broad immigration bill that included a citizenship path, but now favors a piecemeal approach.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has reversed himself on the issue—he now opposes a pathway to citizenship, which he once supported. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is one of the toughest critics of offering citizenship to illegal immigrants but has left unanswered the question of whether they should eventually be allowed to earn legal status.
“What it looks like, I don’t know,” Mr. Huckabee said.
An Associated Press-GfK survey on immigration released May 6 asked half of respondents about a path to citizenship and found 53% in favor. The other half were asked about a path to legal status, and 50% expressed support. Among Republicans, only 4 in 10 support allowing immigrants who arrived as children, along with parents of citizens or permanent residents, to legally remain.
Similarly, in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll late last year, 57% said they favored giving undocumented aliens already here a chance to become citizens, though there was a noticeable partisan split on the issue. Among Democrats, 71% favored a path to citizenship, while among Republicans support was just 40%.
The current stances of GOP candidates also tee up a campaign issue for Mrs. Clinton, who said while campaigning this week in Nevada that Republicans’ refusal to embrace a pathway to citizenship would relegate millions of people to underclass status.
“People are working their way through these positions,” said Andy Puzder, a Republican fundraiser who is chief executive of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. He said the biggest risk for Republicans is that they “use the immigration issue as a cudgel to beat each other up, and we get to the general and it kills us.”
Overhauling immigration law in a way that offers a chance at citizenship is an issue that matters to Hispanic voters across the board, said Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“Immigration is a unifying issue,” he said. “Any candidate who cannot speak to that is going to have an uphill climb.”
Mr. Palomarez, whose group is talking to presidential candidates of both parties, said he was encouraged by signs that GOP candidates were backing away from some of the rhetoric Republicans have used in the past that many Hispanics saw as inflammatory, such as when Mitt Romney in 2012 called for illegal immigrants to “self deport.”
“They are evolving on this tricky issue,” said Mr. Palomarez. “They have come to the realization that without actively engaging this community they are never going to see the White House.’’
In 2012, only 27% of Hispanics voted for Mr. Romney, a steep decline from the 44% who voted for the re-election of President George W. Bush in 2004.
The dynamic is far different within the Republican primary electorate than it is sure to be among general-election voters. For Jeb Bush, past support for a pathway to citizenship looms as a potential obstacle to winning the GOP nomination. Now he talks mostly about granting legal status short of citizenship and about overturning President Barack Obama’s executive actions.
Mr. Rubio, who is Cuban-American, helped write the 2013 Senate bill that included a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants, enhanced border security and other sweeping changes to the immigration system. Mr. Rubio backed away from the legislation after it died in the House. Now he emphasizes the importance of border security and says nothing can be done to put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship until Americans are convinced the border is secure.
Mr. Walker earlier supported immigration legislation that offered a chance at citizenship to people here illegally. He has since renounced that position and argued that the jobs of U.S. citizens could be threatened by giving citizenship to illegal residents and even, potentially, by expanding legal immigration.
Responding to Mrs. Clinton’s call for a pathway to citizenship, Mr. Walker said on Twitter that her “full embrace of amnesty is unfair to hardworking Americans & immigrants who followed the law to achieve these rights.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) a year ago seemed to be signaling openness to granting legal status to undocumented workers, but he ended up voting against the Senate immigration bill that included such provisions, saying it didn’t do enough to secure the border.
Mr. Cruz opposes citizenship for illegal immigrants, but at a session last week with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce he deflected questions about whether he would support a pathway to legal status. Mr. Cruz said politicians should stay focused on advancing policies where there is consensus.