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Deciphering the 2012 GOP State of Play on Immigration Policy & Politics

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romney gingrich perryWhile Newt Gingrich does not have the right policy answer on how to fix our broken immigration system, his recent immigration remarks have helped isolate the key question that fellow GOP candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were hoping to avoid – what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in America? 

As a result, Romney, Gingrich and Perry all found themselves pinned down by that question on Fox News Channel yesterday.  What are they saying, and why?  Here’s our take:

Mitt Romney:  Romney is desperately trying to claim that he has been consistent on immigration policy matters, but unfortunately for Mitt, the facts just don’t bear him out.  Despite the limited scope of Newt Gingrich recent immigration proposal (legalization but not citizenship for a small number of the undocumented population) and despite Romney’s past support for a comprehensive immigration reform plan that would actually create a path to earned citizenship for most undocumented immigrants, Romney now labels anything short of the mass expulsion of 11 million people as “amnesty.”  

In his interview with Fox News yesterday, Romney said, “My view is pretty straightforward.  For those people who have come here illegally, they should have the opportunity to get in line with everybody else who wants to come into this country, but they go to the back of the line and they should be given no special pathway to citizenship or permanent residency merely because they’ve come here illegally.”  Unfortunately for Romney, this is a sound-bite in search of a policy.  The reason that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation is that for all but a few there is no pathway to legal status, permanent residence, and citizenship.  That’s why they either came without authorization or stayed without authorization.  In fact, unauthorized immigrants are desperate for a line to get into!  One of the major objectives of reform is to create such pathways so that immigrants go through the system rather than around it.  By saying “no special pathway” he’s saying, in effect, “all must go back to their native countries and get in nonexistent lines.” 

The bottom line politically:  While trying to pander to the small sliver of Republican primary voters who are adamantly hard-line on immigration and attempting to get to the right of Gingrich and Perry on at least one issue, Romney has imperiled his general election chances.  Gingrich has flushed him out.  He can no longer hide beyond the vacuous and vague “border security first” excuse for inaction on immigration reform.  And by going on the record in support of what amounts to the mass expulsion of millions, Romney is standing in contrast to the wishes of three quarters of the American people, while virtually guaranteeing that he will come nowhere close to the 40% threshold of the Latino vote that any GOP candidate needs to win the White House.  This flip-flop might will haunt him in the general should he win the nomination.

Newt Gingrich:  The specifics of Gingrich’s policy proposal are less impressive than the focus of the conversation that has resulted from his remarks and proposal.  Gingrich offers a “red card” proposal of legalization but no citizenship, that would be applicable only to a tiny group of undocumented immigrants.  While more realistic than “deport ‘em all” proposals, the Gingrich plan falls well short of the comprehensive immigration reform legislation of 2006 that received the backing of 23 Republican Senators and President George W. Bush.  Of course, now that he’s taking heat from some conservative audiences about his immigration stance, Gingrich is both sticking to his guns on his legalization proposal while simultaneously trying to shore up his “tough” credentials.  Earlier this week, he endorsed the anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic South Carolina immigration law that is a copycat of harsh laws approved in Arizona and implemented in Alabama.  

Gingrich also said, “President Obama sided with Mexico.  I would side with South Carolina…It makes you wonder which country he thinks he’s president of.”  And he went on Bill O’Reilly’s show and endorsed a border fence from Brownsville, TX to San Diego, CA alongside other hard-line policy proposals. The bottom line politically: He is both trying to come across as reasonable and hard-line.  It’s a tightrope politically, but Gingrich seems to have an understanding that even Republican voters aren’t as uniformly anti-immigrant as conventional wisdom might suggest and that Latino voters will matter a great deal in the general.  Gingrich’s remarks have also served to draw fellow leading contender Mitt Romney into an uncomfortable discussion on immigration, potentially underscoring the image of Romney as a flip-flopper in the process. 

Rick Perry:  Perry just can’t seem to handle the immigration issue correctly.  Perry’s hard-line positions on border security, his support of Arizona-style immigration provisions and his opposition to the federal DREAM Act add up to a candidate who never has been a moderate in the style of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush on immigration issue.  However, in the earlier squabble over his “heartless” comment, Perry managed to alienate the hard-core anti-immigrant crowd to the point that he now feels the imperative to throw red meat in their direction.  As a result, Perry has been stumping throughout New Hampshire with the notorious anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is validating Perry as a crusading, tough-on-the-border politician, saying, “He doesn’t just talk about it, he does something about it…We have to look at someone who’s already doing something about this problem.”  

Beyond touting the Arpaio endorsement, Perry seems uncomfortable discussing the issue, lurching from dodging specifics while speaking with Greta Van Susteren of Fox News to highlighting his support for “catch and detain” policies while speaking in New Hampshire – a state whose primary voters twice supported John McCain, a previous champion of comprehensive immigration reform. 

The bottom line politically: Perry is trying to shore up his right flank on the issue, appealing to small slivers of the Republican primary and caucus audience who are anti-immigrant and skeptical about Perry’s commitment to hardline policies.  However, he’s caught between a rock and a hard place – even if Perry convinces anti-immigrant primary voters, it will likely be at the expense of his ability to compete for many Latino voters.  His embrace of Arpaio – seen by many Hispanics as the Bull Connor of this generation – will come back to bite him should he pull off the nomination. 

A Reminder on Immigration-related Public Opinion:  In all likelihood, the GOP’s immigration positioning will significantly damage the Republican nominee in the 2012 general election, most acutely among Latino voters.  While immigration simply is not a mobilizing issue for most general election voters, it remains a defining issue for Latino voters.  By taking such a hard line position on immigration, the eventual Republican nominee will find it near impossible to win the 40% of the Latino vote Republican candidates need to win the White House.  Additionally, though immigration is an animating issue for a small sliver of Republican primary and caucus voters, the vast majority of general election voters instead support comprehensive immigration reform instead of deportation plans and prefer solutions over impractical deportation schemes. 

As Gary Segura of Stanford University and a principal of Latino Decisions noted on a press call this week, “Our recent polling found that once you control for one’s economic preference, hostility to immigrants hurts candidates among the general electorate.  It’s not the case that you do better with the American electorate by bashing immigrants, certain Republican primary audiences excluded.”  Similarly Stephen Nuño, a professor at Northern Arizona University, wrote in an analysis of Latino Decisions polling and research data, “a humane approach to immigration is not only a better short term political strategy, but demographic shifts in the electorate present a compelling argument that a humane approach is a better long term strategy as well – for both political parties.”