The Anti-Immigration Fixation: Is It Really Necessary For 2016 Contenders?

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
Font Size:

What is it about the issue of immigration that makes Republican candidates flip and flop?

“I don’t believe that’s the way to go, and I don’t believe that’s where the American people are,” Chris Christie said Monday night on Fox News’ “The Kelly File,” coming out against a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that he previously supported.

Christie is only the latest potential GOP contender to modify his position on immigration in anticipation of a presidential run. From Mitt Romney in 2012 to Christie, Scott Walker and others this presidential cycle, when candidates enter the Republican primary field these days, they seem to squirm to placate the loudest anti-immigration reform forces within the GOP.

But is this really necessary to win the Republican presidential nomination? There is much evidence to suggest it is not.

For starters, it is worth remembering who won the 2008 Republican nomination: John McCain, co-sponsor of a 2006 Senate bill that would have provided more security for America’s borders, in addition to an earned pathway to citizenship for much of America’s illegal immigrant population.

Ok, maybe things have changed since 2008, with the economy taking a turn for the worse. But polls don’t suggest the GOP has recently become militantly anti-immigration reform.

It is true that polling can sometimes be contradictory on the subject of immigration. Certainly the wording of the poll question matters. But many polls over the last several years have shown Republican majorities supporting immigration reform that secures America’s borders and provides a pathway to legalization so long as certain conditions are met.

Whatever the polls show, anti-immigration reform hawks argue Republican primary voters strongly oppose what they refer to as “amnesty” and point to former Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s surprise primary defeat last year as an example of how a candidate’s pro-immigration reform stance can sink them. But it’s hardly clear that the reason Cantor lost was primarily because of his support for immigration reform, especially considering that a poll of his district showed a majority of Republicans there support immigration reform that would provide a pathway to legalization if certain conditions are met. Voters may have been upset that he had neglected the district to attend to his leadership duties, or perhaps his voters didn’t show up to the polls on Election Day due to the fact that almost no one thought he was actually in serious trouble.

What’s more is that on the same day Cantor lost his primary, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham won his in South Carolina. Graham, of course, is one of the poster politicians for comprehensive immigration reform, proudly touting his position to anyone who asks. And yet, in conservative South Carolina, he had little trouble wining his primary.

“I ran against six people and I won by 41 points,” Graham told The Daily Caller last month in Las Vegas. “I went to town hall meeting after town hall meeting, barbecue after barbecue, explaining why I think what I am trying to do makes sense. And the truth of the matter is most Republicans are ok with legal status leading to pathway to citizenship if you can convince them we won’t have a third wave.”

Then there is Marco Rubio. At this moment, according to polls, the Florida senator is among the top GOP contenders for the Republican nomination, despite being a member of the Senate Gang of Eight that authored the 2013 immigration reform bill that provided a pathway to citizenship to much of America’s illegal immigrant population, so long as the illegal immigrants met certain conditions, like learning English and paying a fine.

Sure, Rubio has distanced himself from the bill, now saying he thinks it is best to pursue immigration reform in a piecemeal approach rather than through one comprehensive piece of legislation. But he has not distanced himself from his support for some type of earned path to citizenship.

Despite his stand in support of a pathway for citizenship, when pollsters ask Republican voters which candidates they absolutely could not support, Rubio often does among the best. In an April Quinnipiac poll, for instance, only 4 percent of Republicans said they could never vote for Rubio. Only Scott Walker performed better with 3 percent saying they could never cast their ballot for him.

So much for Rubio being permanently damaged by his key role in pushing the Gang of Eight’s comprehensive immigration bill through the Senate.

It’s possible all this polling will significantly change when anti-immigration reform hawks start-running ads on the issue during the primaries and influential anti-immigration reform radio hosts begin spending their air time berating various candidates over their position on immigration. Maybe then Rubio’s unfavorables will skyrocket and GOP voters will register as staunchly opposed to any type of immigration reform that includes a conditional pathway to some type of legalization.

But judging from the polling we have right now, there is reason to believe that potential and current Republican contenders are needlessly pandering to a small but vocal group of anti-immigration reform absolutists within the party. It seems that a position that favors securing America’s borders along with providing an eventual earned pathway to some type of legalization is well within the Republican mainstream.

Follow Jamie on Twitter