On Immigration, the Parties Get Further Apart

logoBy Laura Meckler, WSJ

The presidential candidates play to their bases in the primary

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Just three years ago, leaders in both political parties thought they were close to enacting sweeping bipartisan immigration legislation. Today, the parties have never been further apart.

The Democratic presidential candidates would give the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. a pathway to citizenship and deport almost no one. The Republican front-runner promises to deport them all, and he has built his campaign on his vision for a wall on the Mexican border.

Both positions have proved helpful in primary contests. The bigger question is who will benefit in November. Democrats are betting that their stance will drive enough Latinos and others to the polls to help them keep the White House. GOP candidates see an opening among white, working-class voters who see immigration as a threat.

It seemed as if the parties were moving closer together in 2013, partly because many GOP leaders concluded that it was in their political interest to pass a legalization program. They were motivated in part by the 2012 election, when strong Latino support helped re-elect President Barack Obama, even though Republican Mitt Romney dominated the white vote.

A sweeping bipartisan immigration bill passed the Senate, then controlled by Democrats, but it was never taken up in the GOP-controlled House. After that, activists on both sides pushed uncompromising positions, and the party’s leaders have largely complied.

“Just a few years we were on the verge of a bipartisan breakthrough.…Since then, the gap between the two parties on immigration policy has become gaping,” said Frank Sharry, who leads the pro-immigration group America’s Voice.

The anti-immigration group Numbers USA, which evaluates a range of immigration positions, gives Republican front-runner Donald Trump a B+ rating on its scorecard, with Sen. Ted Cruz, who is second in the delegate count, earning a perfect A. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, meantime, gets a D-, and her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an F-.

They are reflecting their voters. In a February Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 55% of Republicans said immigration hurts the nation more than it helps, and 70% of Democrats said it helps more than it hurts. As recently as 2010, the Journal/NBC poll found a bare majority of Democrats, 52%, saying immigration helps more than it hurts.

In the mid-2000s, many Democrats feared political damage from supporting immigration, and they took a tough line on enforcement. In 2006, Mr. Sanders joined with many Democrats to support two enforcement-oriented bills, votes that Mrs. Clinton is now highlighting. In 2007, Mrs. Clinton, while running for president, opposed granting of driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

“It was a different time,” Mr. Sharry said. “Immigration was a culturally charged wedge issue wielded by Republicans against Democrats.”

Mr. Sanders also voted against 2007 legislation that would have legalized those in the nation illegally. At the time, he was siding with labor unions who objected to a guest-worker program, fearful it would drive down the wages of Americans. Contrast that with 2013, when every Senate Democrat voted “yes” on the immigration bill.

On the GOP side, business interests have long favored immigration, but after the 2012 election, a critical mass in the party called for a more pro-immigrant posture in hopes of competing for the growing bloc of Hispanic voters. In 2013, 14 Republicans voted “yes” on the Senate bill. After that, the two parties began to diverge.

On the left, activists pressured President Barack Obama to ratchet back deportations and use executive action to protect millions of undocumented immigrants, which he ultimately did. Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders promise to try to expand that policy.

Both candidates also promise not to deport people living in the U.S. unless they have criminal records. Their only divide today is over whether children and families who are newly arriving to the country without authorization should be allowed to stay, even if they don’t meet qualifications for asylum or other protections. Mrs. Clinton says no; Mr. Sanders says yes.

On the Republican side, anti-immigration lawmakers heavily pressured House leaders not to take up any legislation that could be used to negotiate with the Senate. Then, anger over Mr. Obama’s executive action united Republicans, some of whom opposed it on the merits and others who simply thought he was overstepping his powers. Also, an influx of Central American children on the southern border in 2014 added fuel to those arguing that illegal immigration was out of control.

“This is the cumulative effect of just years and years of the [Republican] party leadership not really listening to the concerns of the people back home,” said Ira Mehlman of the anti-immigration Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In November, Democrats foresee big wins in Latino-heavy states such as Colorado, while some Republicans suspect they can gain by turning out more white voters. But other Republicans anticipate a big loss if Mr. Trump tops the ticket, and predict that will shift the party again on immigration.

“We’re on our way to getting smoked again,” said Rob Jesmer, a GOP consultant who has lobbied for the pro-immigration group Fwd.us. “Maybe we need to get crushed one more time before people realize we have to deal with this issue.”

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