Immigration becomes volatile issue in Republican race

Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio

DENVER: It’s becoming clear that immigration is a volatile issue that can trip up Republican presidential hopefuls who must compete for conservative primary voters who oppose amnesty for immigrants living illegally in the U.S.

Just ask Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants.

He stepped up in the Senate as the co-author of a bipartisan immigration reform bill that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. illegally. But he soon came under withering criticism from the party’s ultraconservative tea party wing. The Senate passed the bill, but it failed in the House.

In a moment of candor, Rubio remembered the months of trying to get back up as “a real trial for me.” He now says the bill does not have the support to become law and the first focus should be on border security, a standard Republican position. Rubio ultimately wants to create a process that leads to legal status and then citizenship.

Others, too, have shifted on the matter.
In 2013, Wisconsin Gove. Scott Walker said it “makes sense” to offer a way to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Earlier this month, however, he said he no longer supports “amnesty.”

Complicating that switch, Walker recently discussed immigration with party leaders in New Hampshire, a key early voting state in presidential nominating contests. One of them, state leader Jennifer Horn, says that Walker favored legal status, a position many conservatives equate with “amnesty.”

Worse for Walker, The Wall Street Journal reported that he actually said he favored a path to citizenship, though Horn denies Walker said that.

Even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has a strong voice – and a book – on immigration, has wiggled.
Rubio and Walker are not alone in embracing an immigration overhaul at some point. But doing so raises the specter of “amnesty” in the minds of those who want people unlawfully in the country to be given no relief from the threat of deportation.

“All the candidates have mixed statements – they have statements that seem to support amnesty and they all have ones that seem to oppose it,” said Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, which seeks to reduce immigration. “They’re torn between the big-money people who gain from high immigration and the voters who oppose it.”

Luis Alvarado, a California-based Republican strategist, said most Republican officials privately acknowledge that the country has to legalize the status of people who are here unlawfully while also bolstering border security.

“They believe that no one in their conscious mind can deport 11 million people from this country,” Alvarado said. “But, politically, they have to play word games to be elected in the primary.”
Among the potential 2016 hopefuls:

• Bush has said he will not back away from his support for giving legal status to many in the country illegally. But his 2013 book outlining that stance marks a departure from an earlier position that envisaged eventual citizenship. Bush’s wife is from Mexico.

• Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul voted against Rubio’s bill but says the millions of people in the country illegally cannot all be sent home.

• Texas Sen, Ted Cruz, the only declared candidate so far, has kept a fairly consistent tough line on the issue, supporting efforts to overturn President Barack Obama’s executive orders deferring deportation for millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said “the ground has shifted” on the issue for two reasons. He cited the influx of Central American youth crossing the border illegally last summer that overwhelmed federal officials, and Obama’s unilateral acts to shield some immigrants from deportation that made it politically impossible for a Republican to embrace a pathway to citizenship.

But Frank Sharry of America’s Voice, which supports an overhaul, said some of Bush’s rivals are “going to be accused of flip-flopping and that’s going to become a character issue” playing into Bush’s hands.
The wide-open nature of the Republican race also brings to light a tension between what some Republican fundraisers want – an overhaul with a legal path – and what conservative primary voters wish for.

Spencer Zwick, finance chairman for 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, is one donor who has said he will only support candidates who favor such an overhaul.
But Beck of Numbers USA predicts that the candidates will rally behind a harder line once the hopefuls hold their first debates later this year.- AP

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