While most of the Republicans testing the 2016 presidential waters are in favor of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the GOP’s Senate candidates are generally focusing on the enforcement side, calling for a crackdown — a striking difference that underscores just how difficult the issue is for the party.
With the exception of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, Republican presidential candidates have generally been to the left of their party on immigration, with George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain leading the pack.
The same sort of scenario is playing out in the run-up to the Republican nomination race, with the exceptions of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who opposes amnesty for illegals, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who says that lawmakers should secure the border first before discussing anything else.
But Senate candidates, responding to a much different electorate, tack to the right, and it’s difficult to find even incumbent Republican senators who are running on a platform of legalizing illegal immigrants.
Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said the GOP Senate candidates who get attention are usually in states with small numbers of Hispanic voters, and don’t need to cater to their vote. But national-level candidates do need to pay attention to Latinos, which can mean softening their message.
“It is a different constituency and at this point, where Latinos are going to make a difference, and are going to be decisive, is at the national level,” Mr. Aguilar said, adding that he believes the GOP is poised to rally around a proposal that ties together border enforcement and some sort of legalization.
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Others, though, say that the presidential candidates are listening to misguided consultants and bias polling, while the congressional candidates are more in tune with voters.
“They certainly don’t want an amnesty right now,” Steve Camarota, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said, alluding to everyday voters. “What they would prefer is the law being enforced. I think that is what we are seeing and that is why most of the candidates don’t take that position.”
Rep. Paul Broun, who is running in a five-way primary race in Georgia for retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ seat, is touting how he championed a “No Amnesty” resolution “that would keep Congress from granting citizenship or legalized status to those who entered the US, or stayed in the US, illegally.”
In North Carolina, state house Speaker Thom Tillis, who is leading in a crowded field and received the endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is pro-legalization, says he opposes amnesty and believes that Congress should secure the border before it even thinks about other chances in our immigration laws.
“We need to seal the border,” Mr. Tillis said in a debate. “We need to be clear that there is no such thing as amnesty. Amnesty has been tired it didn’t work. It created a bigger problem.”
Even in Colorado — a state where Mr. Aguilar said Hispanic voters will play a bigger than average role — Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, says he opposes amnesty and wants to crack down on employers who hire illegal workers.
These are the same sorts of arguments that helped sink a bill pushed by Sen. Marco Rubio and a bipartisan group of eight Senators that would have granted quick legal status to illegal immigrants, with the chance for a full pathway to citizenship in later years.
Mr. Bush embraced the bill, as did Rep. Paul Ryan and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who also signed a law in his state granting illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates to state colleges and universities.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also embraced a pathway to citizenship in the past,” telling The Washington Post in 2006 that the “rational approach is to find a way to give people a pathway to citizenship.”
For his part, Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, has embraced legalizing the millions here illegally by expanding work visas. He voted against Mr. Rubio’s legalization bill, but said the problem was that it didn’t expand legal immigration enough.
Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist, said those candidates are eyeing the presidential math.
“If you go solely for blue collar white voters, yes, you can win a presidential election, there is no doubt about it, but you have to thread a very narrow needle, and that window is going to keep closing,” the strategist said.
“Nobody is saying that immigration is going to get you votes,” he said. “What a lot of people are saying is that, ‘We have a problem and it is only getting exacerbated because it is easier to come her illegally then legally and, frankly, eventually you are going to run out of white voters. So this is more seen as a doorway to being able to being able to begin that conversation.”
Others, though, have warned that any proposal that leads to more immigration could doom the conservative wing of the Republican party because most Hispanics share the big government views of Democrats.
“How does dramatically increasing the number of votes in the country who generally agree with the Democratic party help Republicans?” Mr. Camarota said.