Why GOP candidates keep debating illegal immigration, despite pitfalls
For a core of conservative Republican primary voters, illegal immigration constitutes a key test for defining who a presidential candidate is.
Immigration has burst onto the Republican presidential campaign stage, with some candidates employing the scarlet ‚ÄúA‚ÄĚ word ‚Äď amnesty ‚Äď to label the policy prescription of rivals. Others are using the issue to sound tough on national security.
But don‚Äôt expect to hear any comprehensive or politically realistic discussion of what for some crucial segments of the voting population remains an emotional topic, many immigration experts say.
Instead, they add, candidates will use such a hot-button issue as a vehicle for saying something else ‚Äď about themselves or others. And some voters for whom the illegal-immigration issue resonates will in turn use what they hear to give a candidate a Roman thumbs up or thumbs down.
‚ÄúImmigration is a tool for Republican and independent voters especially that helps them think in shorthand about these candidates,‚ÄĚ says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs an issue that‚Äôs going to be around for the rest of the campaign, so get used to it popping up,‚ÄĚ he adds. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just not going to be a clarifying part of it.‚ÄĚ
Jobs and the economy may be the overarching campaign issue, but for a core of conservative Republican primary voters, immigration constitutes a key test for defining who a candidate is. The downside of that, some conservative policy analysts say, is that it leads to one-upmanship among the candidates to see who can sound toughest.
‚ÄúImmigration is a legitimate issue because we do have a problem with illegal immigration,‚ÄĚ says Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute in Washington.
‚ÄúUnfortunately, we‚Äôre seeing a kind of demagogic tit for tat defined by the harshness of the rhetoric as each candidate tries to outdo the other,‚ÄĚ he also says. ‚ÄúFirst it‚Äôs a fence all along the border, then it‚Äôs a two-tier fence, and that leads to an electrified two-tier fence that will electrocute any illegal who touches it.‚ÄĚ
Some of the key words and phrases related to immigration that have been used by the Republican hopefuls in recent weeks include ‚Äúhumane,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúheart,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúlaw and order,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúdeport,‚ÄĚ and of course ‚Äúamnesty.‚ÄĚ
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jolted sleepy viewers to attention and fired up the blogosphere last week when he used a CNN debate on foreign policy to argue for a ‚Äúhumane‚ÄĚ immigration policy. It would provide a path to legalization for illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for decades.
Mr. Gingrich has not backed off his proposal, but he has worked in subsequent days to shore up his anti-illegal-immigration credentials. He‚Äôs told audiences in South Carolina that he supports a state law that would require police who are suspicious about the status of a stopped driver to verify the driver‚Äôs immigration status with federal officials.
Challenged at a September debate over his support for Texas‚Äô version of the DREAM Act ‚Äď which extends in-state tuition to college students who have been educated in state schools but who lack legal status ‚Äď Governor Perry responded that anyone who didn‚Äôt support the idea doesn‚Äôt ‚Äúhave a heart.‚ÄĚ
Down plummeted Perry‚Äôs formerly high-flying numbers. Since then, he has regularly outdone himself trying to reestablish his tough-on-illegals credentials ‚Äď insisting that as president he would ‚Äúshut down‚ÄĚ the southern border and deport all illegal immigrants rounded up.
‚ÄúMy policy will be to detain and deport every illegal alien who is apprehended in this country,‚ÄĚ Perry declared this week in New Hampshire. ‚ÄúAnd we‚Äôll do it with an expedited hearing process so that millions of illegal aliens are not released into the general population with some hearing date down the road.‚ÄĚ
But ‚ÄúSheriff Joe‚ÄĚ is unlikely to be able to reverse Perry‚Äôs slide, immigration policy analysts say.
‚ÄúYou have to wonder how many New Hampshire primary voters even know who this sheriff from Arizona is, so it‚Äôs hard to see how he‚Äôs the guy who‚Äôs going to save [Perry],‚ÄĚ says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy in Arlington, Va.
But Gingrich is unlikely to suffer the same fate as Perry over his immigration stance, says Mr. Anderson, who specializes in immigration issues. While Perry‚Äôs ‚Äúheart‚ÄĚ comment sounded like he was moralizing, he says, Gingrich‚Äôs ‚Äúhumane‚ÄĚ comment ‚Äď and the way he defined its application to illegal aliens who have lived in the US ‚Äúfor decades‚ÄĚ ‚Äď probably came off as common sense to many listeners, especially in the broader audience of Republicans and independents.
‚ÄúWe have to remember that about 70 percent of the illegal immigrant population came here 10 years ago or more,‚ÄĚ Anderson says. ‚ÄúI think people make a distinction between being told they are morally wrong if they don‚Äôt support providing taxpayer-funded schooling for illegal immigrants, and being told that we‚Äôre going to have to find a way to address the legal status of people who have lived here for a long time.‚ÄĚ
Given the pitfalls that immigration presents, Republican candidates might be better off steering clear of the issue altogether. But Mr. Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies says it won‚Äôt go away because enough voters stick to it as a defining issue.
‚ÄúFor the voters who are worried about things like the loss of America‚Äôs sovereignty, that we‚Äôve lost control of our country, immigration resonates as an us-versus-them issue that identifies politicians who are post-American,‚ÄĚ Krikorian says.
That‚Äôs why Perry fell so fast, he adds. ‚ÄúPeople who had assumed, ‚ÄėHe‚Äôs one of us‚Äô suddenly were saying, ‚ÄėAha, he‚Äôs really one of them.‚Äô And he hasn‚Äôt been able to recover from that.‚ÄĚ