It was supposed to have been solved more than a decade ago, but immigration continues to roil the American political debate, and has come to dominate this year’s presidential primaries in a way few would have expected after the 2012 election.
Republicans have stormed to the right, drawn there by Donald Trump’s forceful vow to deport all illegal immigrants — but just as surprising has been Democrats’ veer to the left, staking out positions that suggest they would grant amnesty to nearly all illegal immigrants.
Left in between, still, are most voters, who remain tremendously conflicted, telling pollsters they want stiffer border controls and a crackdown on employers, but are also willing to show mercy to some illegal immigrants already here, as long as they are required to learn English and pay back taxes.
The campaigns, meanwhile, are plowing new ground in the debate, increasingly moving beyond illegal immigration to focus on the legal system and whether the country can handle the current pace of 1 million new arrivals a year.
“All of the negative things about the economy that the president mentioned in his State of the Union are true — the rising inequality, the stagnant middle class. All of those things are happening, and people see that the government just continues to run this automatic mass-immigration program,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which advocates for strict immigration limits, and has been running an ad during both GOP and Democratic presidential debates driving home that point.
Both parties have talked a grand game in promising action on immigration in elections, but their efforts to follow through with major legislation stalled in 2001, 2007 and 2013.
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“It’s so controversial because it hasn’t been solved. It’s going to continue to roil the political waters until there’s a bipartisan breakthrough that actually solves the problem,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading advocacy group for immigrants.
Republicans in particular had hoped to put the issue behind them after 2012, when their candidate, Mitt Romney, garnered just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls. The Republican National Committee issued an election post-mortem blaming Mr. Romney’s stance on immigration, and insisting the party embrace legalization and reforms to the legal system.
And in 2013 it looked like the GOP might do just that, with four Republicans, two of whom would go on to run for president, joining four Democrats in writing a massive overhaul. That bill, which included a long-term path to citizenship for most illegal immigrants, cleared the Senate on a bipartisan vote but was never sent to the House.
The effort did not help Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican whose presidential campaign never took off. And it’s proved poisonous to Sen. Marco Rubio, who in recent weeks has claimed a do-over on both illegal immigration — for which he says legalization must now be pushed years into the future — and on legal immigration, which he says recent terrorist attacks have convinced him of the need for strict controls.
“This issue is a dramatically different issue than it was 24 months ago,” he said at last week’s GOP debate.
Fellow candidates pounced on him, but analysts said Mr. Rubio’s mulligan was to be expected after he and the rest of the field felt the heat from Mr. Trump, who kicked off his presidential campaign this summer by vowing to get tough on immigration, and has not let up in the face of fierce criticism over his rhetoric.
“It just seems like Republicans are in the thrall of the die-hards, the people who are willing to take the party down because they see immigration is part of what’s changing the party in ways they don’t like,” Mr. Sharry said.
At the same time, Democrats have moved to the left, becoming more united in backing legalization. In 2007 about a third of Senate Democrats voted against the immigration bill. In 2013 none of them did.
And on the presidential campaign trail, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernard Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley all have announced that they would not only expand President Obama’s deportation amnesty to include more illegal immigrants, but have said this year that they oppose the new series of raids targeting illegal immigrants who have been ordered deported but are refusing to go.
Mr. Beck, who’s been following the issue for decades, said he was stunned to see both sides. He said Mr. Trump’s call for mass deportations goes even beyond what NumbersUSA and other groups had advocated, while the Democrats have dropped even Mr. Obama’s rhetoric on enforcement from 2007 and 2008.
“He used to talk that way. Now the Democratic candidates really don’t say anything about enforcement,” Mr. Beck said.
He said Mr. Trump’s call is resonating with people who’ve stopped believing the federal government will ever enforce immigration laws. But Mr. Beck said he didn’t have an explanation for why Democrats have shifted to the left on the issue.
Mr. Sharry, however, said it’s a strategic move. He said immigrant rights advocates dating back to the middle of the last decade had sought a bipartisan approach, turning to major figures such as Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Republican Sen. John McCain for leadership.
But when those failed, the groups concluded they gained nothing from trying to start out at what they thought was the center of the debate.
Democratic politicians have followed the groups’ lead and, more surprisingly, have become eager to talk about the issue on the campaign trail, having seen its political resonance in key states.
“It used to be something you only talked about in front of Latino audiences,” Mr. Sharry said. “It’s now a staple. They lead with it.”
The unity among Democrats is even sparking new alliances between liberal interest groups.
Last week the Latino Victory Project announced Tom Steyer, a major figure in the environmental movement, was joining their group as honorary co-chairman, linking two powerful forces in the Democratic coalition. Mr. Steyer vies with fellow billionaire George Soros as a top funder of liberal causes.