Anyone who has ever used the term “Shamnesty” — or, more likely, “SHAMNESTY!!!!” — is going to hate the likely 2016 GOP presidential field. All of it.
The immigration reform debate centers around many issues, but probably none is more explosive than what should be done about the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. The loudest critics of comprehensive immigration reform in the Republican Party demand that there be no “amnesty,” which they define as any pathway to normalizing the immigration statuses of America’s illegal population, no matter whether those illegals would be forced to pay a financial penalty or even prevented from gaining citizenship.
Yet, despite the issue garnering so much ink, the reality is every major candidate supports an immigration policy that includes an “amnesty,” at least as defined by the GOP’s most ardent and vocal immigration hawks.
Much has been made of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s support for a pathway to citizenship for most of the illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. But conservative grassroots stalwarts like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also envision some type of normalization for illegals living in the country.
Cruz has said he would support ultimately legalizing most of the undocumented immigrants in the country, though without providing a pathway to citizenship.
Paul also supports a pathway to legalization for illegals, with the prospect of eventually earning citizenship.
“After ensuring border security, then I would normalize the status of the 11 million undocumented citizens so they can join the workforce and pay taxes,” he wrote in a Washington Times column in 2013.
“Most of these undocumented immigrants are poor and may not be able to ever pay ten years of back payroll taxes,” he added. “I would be willing to forego the fines and back taxes in exchange for a longer and significant time period before these folks are eligible to enter into the green card line.”
Of course, most GOP contenders who support an ultimate pathway to citizenship, or at least a process of normalization, condition their support on things like further securing America’s Southern border and making illegal immigrants pay a financial penalty. But nearly all support the general principle: most of the 11 million illegal immigrants who violated America’s laws in making their way into the country should be allowed to stay and work in the country so long as they haven’t committed any further crimes.
At the Republican Governors Association meeting last fall, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who will be visiting South Carolina this week as he considers a 2016 presidential run, said a pathway to citizenship may be necessary.
“My sense is I don’t like the idea of citizenship when people jump the line, [but] we may have to do it,” he said. “It may be a laborious and tough process. I would never say we would never do it. … At the end of the day it may be necessary.”
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is a less reluctant supporter of a pathway to citizenship.
“Once the border is secure, and not before, we should provide an opportunity for those who came here illegally seeking to work for a better life to gain legal status rather quickly, if and only if they are willing to do all that is required,” he wrote in National Review in 2013. “We should deport immediately those who engage in criminal activity. We should bar those seeking public assistance from receiving welfare or unemployment benefits for a substantial period of time.”
He continued: “As for a pathway to citizenship: For folks who came here illegally but are willing to gain proficiency in English, pay a fine, and demonstrate a willingness to assimilate, we should require them to work here and pay taxes for a substantial period of time after obtaining legal status before they have the opportunity to begin the process of applying for U.S. citizenship.”
Mike Huckabee, who as Arkansas governor supported legislation that would have provided in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, has recently been most vocal about not punishing illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. by their parents as children. But though the immigration plan he ran on in the 2008 GOP primary did not provide for a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, in 2013 he hinted he would support a pathway to some type of legalization for a larger population of illegals residing in the United States.
“I do think there should be a way that people who have been here for a while, who have lived decent clean lives like our ancestors did, can have a path to be able to work,” he told The Christian Post in 2013.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been somewhat elliptical in recent months when discussing his position on immigration, but the bulk of the evidence seems to suggest he does support a pathway to citizenship as part of overhauling America’s immigration system. When National Review sought to pin the governor down on the issue, a spokesman for Walker said the governor believes it “makes sense” to provide a pathway to citizenship as long as certain conditions are met.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has straightforwardly refused to answer questions about his stance on immigration recently, saying that “he won’t have anything to say on immigration unless and until I become a candidate for president of the United States.” But earlier in his tenure as governor he was singing a different tune.
“The president and the Congress have to step up to the plate, they have to secure our borders and they have to put forward a commonsense path to citizenship for people,” he told ABC News in 2010.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been the most ambiguous on whether he would ever support a pathway to citizenship or legalization for undocumented immigrants who have been living in the U.S.
“I think a candidate better be talking about securing the border and having a plan to secure the border before they ever have a conversation about what’s next,” he told the Wall Street Journal in January when asked about a pathway to citizenship.
But it is hard to believe that a governor who signed into law a bill to provide in-state tuition to illegal immigrants — and said during the 2012 GOP presidential primary that those who oppose the policy have no “heart” — would be entirely unamenable to legalizing at least part of the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. as part of an immigration reform package.
Of all the potential 2016 presidential candidates who actually have enough supporters to register in polls, only retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum appear to oppose any pathway to normalization for the illegal immigrants living in America, at least without them leaving the country first.
“People already here illegally could apply for guest-worker status from outside of the country,” Carson explained in National Review, detailing his ideal immigration plan. “This means they would have to leave first. They should in no way be rewarded for having broken our laws, but if they are wise, they will arrange with their employer before they leave to immediately offer them a legal job as soon as their application is received. When they return, they still would not be U.S. citizens, but they would be legal, and they would be paying taxes.”
Santorum pitched a similar proposal as far back as 2006.
But even Santorum and Carson’s plans would probably be considered an amnesty by the staunchest immigration hawks. When he served in the House in 2006, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who himself is a possible 2016 contender, proposed an immigration reform compromise that, like Carson and Santorum’s proposals, would make illegal immigrants return to the nation of their birth before applying to return as guest workers.
Pence wanted companies to work with “placement agencies” to make sure the turnaround of their illegal immigrant workers was quick. But despite billing his proposal the “no-amnesty solution,” it was immediately derided by top immigration hawks like Iowa Republican Steve King and Center for Immigration Studies executive director Mark Kirkorian as — you guessed it — an amnesty.
Some candidates may end up changing their immigration position if they officially enter the 2016 field, believing (perhaps falsely) that they need to take tougher stance on the issue in order to win the Republican nomination. Others will probably continue to use increasingly vague language to mask their actual views on the issue. But as of now, the reality is there are very few, if any, choices for uncompromising immigration reform opponents who believe illegal immigrants should not be afforded a legal place in the United States under any circumstances.
In fact, by the standards of people like Iowa Rep. Steve King, every serious 2016 presidential contender is a supporter of amnesty.