Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has become the latest potential Republican presidential candidate to try to tailor his position on immigration to the party’s primary electorate, assuring voters that he is now against granting citizenship rights to illegal immigrants.
Mr. Walker was for a path to citizenship before he was against it, having embraced it in 2013 before reversing himself this year, now espousing a security-first approach that has become the fallback position for much of the Republican presidential field.
“I do not believe in amnesty for citizenship,” Mr. Walker said at a press conference in Milwaukee last week. “I believe if someone wants to become a citizen, they need to go to their country of origin and come in the same system just like anyone else.”
His new stance has drawn derision from immigrant rights advocates, who say he’s chasing after conservative primary voters at the expense of the broader electorate he would face if he becomes the GOP’s nominee. Those activists say Republican candidates are undercutting their chances of winning Hispanic voters in 2016 and beyond after 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” message helped sink the GOP to barely a quarter of Latinos’ votes that year.
So far, the likely 2016 field has shied away from “self-deportation,” but most of them have taken a hard line against “amnesty” and citizenship. Those bucking that trend include former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both of Florida, and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who have been more open to legalization and an eventual pathway to citizenship.
“If you could get a consensus done, where you could have a bill done and it was 15 years [to achieve citizenship] as the Senate Gang of Eight did, I’d be supportive of that,” Mr. Bush recently said during a swing through New Hampshire, alluding to the comprehensive immigration that Mr. Rubio and Mr. Graham helped usher through the Senate in 2013.
GOP-friendly business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and big-dollar donors also want to see more generous immigration laws and, particularly, an enhanced guest-worker program to gain access to new foreign labor.
Conservative activists, meanwhile, want stricter immigration laws. They say the party must protect American workers by bolstering border security and internal enforcement of laws already on the books — an approach that includes deporting those who have overstayed their visas or entered the country illegally.
Their base, they argue, will reward them at the polls for opposing amnesty.
GOP presidential candidates are trying to figure out which of those two poles to tilt toward, with many of them calling for stricter enforcement against illegal immigration, but also vowing a more generous approach toward future legal immigrants.
As for Mr. Walker, he is trying to recalibrate.
He supported a 2006 resolution as Milwaukee County executive that urged Congress to pass the Senate’s legalization bill that year, written by Sens. John McCain and Edward M. Kennedy and backed by President George W. Bush, which offered a path to citizenship for almost all illegal immigrants.
Then, in 2013, as the issue was heating up again, Mr. Walker was asked by the Wausau Daily Herald if he could support a situation where illegal immigrants could get citizenship if they met conditions such as paying penalties and waiting for some years. “Yeah, sure,” he replied.
“You hear some people talk about border security and a wall and all that,” Mr. Walker also said during the interview. “To me, I don’t know that you need any of that if you had a better, saner way to let people into the country in the first place.”
But in March he flatly said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” “My view has changed.”
Since then, Mr. Walker faced additional scrutiny after The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and CNN reported he told Republicans at a private dinner in New Hampshire that he still supported a pathway to citizenship.
The Walker camp vehemently denied the report, and Mr. Walker has stated his new crackdown position on a trip last month to the U.S.-Mexico border with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, as well as at a press conference last week.
The top priority of the federal government, he said, should be border enforcement and then developing an E-Verify system “to make sure the people working for them are legal to work for them, are legal to be in the United States.”
“Then the next president and the Congress are going to have to look at working together on a policy for what to do for others who are seeking something other then citizenship,” he said. “But, believe me, that is going to take a fair amount of time, just because those are currently not the priorities of this federal government.”
Mr. Walker’s rivals and their supporters say the governor has a pattern of being wishy-washy on hot-button issues.
Pro-immigration advocates, meanwhile, said Mr. Walker’s reversal could haunt him.
“Politically, it might as well have the Mitt Romney 2012 seal of approval, as it’s tilting dangerously toward the infamous ‘self-deportation’ concept,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “Not only does the transparent pandering to hard-line primary voters threaten the eventual Republican nominee’s chances of retaking the White House, but it goes beyond immigration to raise larger questions and concerns of character, consistency and leadership.”
But Charles Franklin, political science professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, said that he thinks Mr. Walker’s shift is in part “genuine” and in part a reflection of the “evolution on the issue within the Republican Party.”
“It wasn’t that long ago that President Bush was pushing for immigration reform,” Mr. Franklin said. “In the time since then, the center of gravity in the party has moved noticeably farther toward the ‘no pathway to citizenship’ position.”
Backed by Mr. Bush, the GOP-led Senate passed an immigration legalization bill in 2006, but it failed to see action in the House. A year later, with Democrats in control, the Senate tried again but failed when a bipartisan filibuster blocked the legislation.
In 2013 Mr. Rubio and Mr. Graham tried again, along with Mr. McCain, Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, and four Democrats. The bill they wrote, which offered quick legalization and an extended, multitiered path to citizenship to most illegal immigrants, passed on a 68-32 vote, with 14 Republicans joining Democrats.
For his part, Mr. Rubio, who is expected to enter the presidential race on April 13, now says the experience taught him that Congress will not be able to give the immigration system a much-needed face-lift until voters are convinced that the federal government has secured the nation’s borders.
Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said that Mr. Walker has the chance to seize the populist mantle in the 2016 GOP race with a pro-worker message, but said he is “floundering” by not supporting stricter limits on the level of future legal immigration, which could leave American workers facing competition for jobs.
“It is a little disappointing in that he has had time to think about what he has to say and has kind of been all over the place,” Mr. Camarota said. “It is too bad. He is missing an opportunity as a top-tier candidate to distance himself from people like Rand Paul and Jeb Bush, who call for big increases in legal immigration.
“To do that he needs a more populist economic message, and immigration is staring him in the face, and he just hasn’t been able to articulate it,” he said. “He may miss out on the chance.”