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GOP Contenders Continue to Toe a "Militant Line" on Immigration

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iowa caucusAs the Republican presidential campaign moves into the homestretch before the first caucus and primaries of the 2012 campaign, it’s increasingly clear that the candidate field is lacking a true moderate on immigration reform in the style of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.  For no discernible political or policy reason beyond misguided conventional wisdom, the candidate field remains tethered to a far right immigration stance that will limit the eventual nominee’s appeal to Latino voters in the general election.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

Look at what the supposed immigration moderates in the field are saying.  Newt Gingrich is proposing to send 7 to 9 million immigrants home, and Rick Perry is defending his supporter Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Latino community’s Bull Connor.  It’s clear that the Republican field is anchored to the hard line right of the immigration spectrum.

As Beth Reinhard captures in a new National Journal cover story:

Again and again, debate over illegal immigration has punctuated a campaign billed as a referendum on the economy.  Acting like candidates for president of their local Minuteman chapter, the contenders for the GOP nomination have been competing to out-vigilante each other, rousing some ardent conservatives.  But drill down into the polling, spend an afternoon in Perry, or consider Newt Gingrich’s surge in the polls even after he proposed an immigration policy that rivals tarred as ‘amnesty,’ and it becomes clear that Republican voters’ views are more nuanced.  What’s more, hard-line rhetoric in recent elections has alienated Latino voters at a time when their power to swing elections is only growing.  Antithetical to its past and potentially poisonous to its future, the GOP’s militant line risks long-term self-sabotage.

Here’s our take on leading candidates and recent developments when it comes to the 2012 cycle and immigration:

Newt Gingrich:  The specifics of Gingrich’s immigration policy proposal remain far less impressive than the fact that his comments have shifted the focus of immigration discussions in the campaign toward the relevant question – what candidates would do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States.   Gingrich’s call for a “red card” proposal of legalization but no citizenship for a small group of undocumented immigrants remains an inadequate policy solution for regaining control over the broken immigration system.  On CBS’s “Face the Nation” this Sunday, Gingrich detailed the limits of his proposal: “Seven or eight or nine million would go home and get a guest worker permit and come back under the law. The last two million are people who have been here a very long time.”  In reality, there would be no way for them to come back under current law.  The more Gingrich specifies his proposal, the more clear it is that he’s no immigration moderate.  In fact, it’s only compared to candidates like Mitt Romney – who wants to deport all 11 million – that Gingrich seems reasonable on the issue.

Ron Paul:  As forecasters and pundits like Nate Silver of the New York Times note the distinct possibility that Ron Paul could win the Iowa caucuses, it’s worth reminding that Paul is far from a classic pro-immigrant libertarian.  Though he opposes mandatory E-Verify legislation, Paul supports repealing birthright citizenship, voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, and said this summer, “why do we pay more attention to the borders overseas and less attention to the borders here at home?”  Notably, Paul also revealed that his opposition to “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants has a distinctly political element and stems from not wanting them to become voters: at an August debate, Paul said, “I don’t think that we should give amnesty and they become voters.”

Rick Perry:  After the U.S. Department of Justice announced its findings of its investigation of the notorious anti-Latino Sheriff Joe Arpaio last week, Perry used the occasion to criticize the Obama Administration and to stick up for Arpaio, who has endorsed Perry and stumped with the candidate on the campaign trail.  Perry’s hard-line positions on border security, his support of “papers, please” state immigration approaches like Arizona, and his opposition to the federal DREAM Act add up to a candidate who never has been a real moderate on the issue.  However, in the earlier squabble over his “heartless” comment regarding in-state tuition, Perry alienated the hard-core anti-immigrant crowd to the point that he has wildly overcompensated and now feels compelled to tout his anti-immigrant bona fides at any cost.  Now, Perry’s embrace of the notorious Arpaio will undoubtedly alienate millions general election voters should Perry somehow emerge as the nominee.  For example, in addition to his anti-Latino policing tactics, Arpaio’s department is in hot water for failing to follow up on “more than 400 alleged sex crimes between 2005 and 2007.”

Mitt RomneyRomney has endorsed mass deportation as his immigration policy vision, spelling out his goal of evicting the entire undocumented population from the U.S. without exception.  Witness his recent call for the entirety of the undocumented population to, “return home and get in the – in line at the back of the line with everybody else that wants to come here….So, from my view– viewpoint, the key– the key measure is this: No favoritism for permanent residency or citizenship for those that have come here illegally.” However, the “line” that Romney is referring to simply doesn’t exist; hence the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the first place.  As Peter Wallsten assessed in the Washington Post, “Republicans are increasingly worried that their party’s efforts to win a competitive slice of the fast-growing Hispanic vote in important presidential battleground states are being undermined by Mitt Romney’s heated rhetoric on illegal immigration.  Several leading GOP strategists say Romney’s sharp-tongued attacks have gained wide attention in Hispanic media and are eroding the party’s already fragile standing in that community.”  Romney remains in a dangerous place politically, as his attempts to pander to the small sliver of Republican primary voters who are adamantly hard-line on immigration continues to be at the expense of even minimal levels of appeal to Latino voters in a potential general election.