Ohio Gov. John Kasich said non-violent illegal immigrants are here to stay, that trying to deport them would cause “sheer panic” among Hispanics, and that the U.S. must find a way of legalizing them.
Toeing a more liberal line on immigration than some of his rivals in the 2016 GOP presidential race, Mr. Kasich vowed during an appearance Tuesday before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he would not lead an aggressive crackdown on illegal immigrants.
“The idea that we are going to pick these folks up and ship them out, I mean that is just unbelievable,” Mr. Kasich told Javier Palomarez, the group’s president in a question-and-answer session at the Newseum in Washington. “What are we going to do, ride into neighborhoods and announce ‘Come on out, now you are going to the border’?”
Mr. Kasich embraced a three-pronged approach to immigration, saying the nation must secure the border, strengthen guest worker programs and then grant a pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants.
“The public would accept this as a reasonable proposal and I think it would pass the Congress,” he said.
Mr. Kasich’s views on immigration have changed over time, and he firmly disavowed his support as a member of Congress for a bill that would have rescinded automatic birthright citizenship for children born to illegal immigrant mothers.
“If you are born here, you are a citizen — period,” he said at the forum on Tuesday where he also softened his previous calls for completing a wall along the U.S. Mexico border.
“There are technologies today that can be just as effective as a physical wall,” he said. “I mean, with the ability to have sensors and drones and things like that, I think it is just imperative that we control our border.”
President Obama outperformed Mitt Romney by a 71 percent to 27 percent margin among Hispanics in the 2012 presidential election and the Republican National Committee afterward called for the party to soften stances on illegal immigration as part of a broad effort to woo Hispanics, who made up 10 percent of the electorate.
But GOP voters are still divided on the issue.
Indeed, a Pew Research poll released last month found that 43 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters are more likely to support a candidate who “wants to deport all immigrants now living in the U.S. illegally,” while 29 percent said it would make them less likely to support a candidate and 24 percent said it is not a major factor for them.
Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner in polls, has helped push immigration to the forefront of the presidential race by calling for the deportation of all illegal immigrants, as well as for more border fencing and ending the policy of granting automatic citizenship to almost everyone born in the U.S., including to illegal immigrant mothers.
Mr. Trump also opposes Mr. Obama’s executive amnesties and recently pulled out of appearing before the Hispanic Chamber, which has responded by warning that the decision “only deepens our community’s already negative perceptions of him.”
In introducing Mr. Kasich on Tuesday, Mr. Palomarez took another veiled shot at Mr. Trump over his cancellation, noting that there was another “fellow who chickened out” and thanking Mr. Kasich for “keeping your word and coming to talk to the Hispanic community — unlike others in your party.”
Mr. Kasich responded, “My pleasure. Why wouldn’t I come?”
Mr. Trump has received an “A-” grade from Numbers USA, which wants to crack down on immigration, while Mr. Kasich has received a “D” from the group.
Still, the Democratic National Committee said Mr. Kasich and Mr. Trump are similar on immigration.
“Like his fellow Republicans running for president, Kasich only peddles the same failed policies that already left too many Americans behind during the last two Republican administrations,” said Pablo Manriquez, director of Hispanic media for the DNC.
Mr. Kasich is running seventh in national polls, and is focusing much of his attention on a strong showing in New Hampshire, where he is running in fifth place.