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Must-Read from Benji Sarlin: “3 Big Immigration Questions The GOP 2016 Field Must Answer"

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In a must-read piece, MSNBC’s Benji Sarlin highlights the make-or-break issue facing Republicans eager to retake the White House in 2016: Immigration.

Following 2012’s Presidential election, the relentless demographic and political changes, combined with Congress’s failure to pass immigration reform and President Obama’s subsequent immigration actions, have made the issue impossible for Republicans to sweep under the rug.

But, as Sarlin discusses in “3 Big Immigration Questions The GOP 2016 Field Must Answer,” in attempting to survive both primary and general elections, Republican candidates from Scott Walker (who seems to be tackling to the right,) and Jeb Bush (busy tackling to the left, sometimes even en español) have been clear-as-mud or evasive when it comes to naming specific immigration proposals.

Now, some immigration advocates have been warning: Republicans will at some not-so-distant point need to offer more than soundbites and talking points if they really do intend to make a serious bid for the Presidency.

Read Sarlin’s full piece here, or one key excerpt below:

So far, no issue has divided the GOP more heading into 2016 than immigration. Candidates primed to court the right like Scott Walker are tacking right, while candidates out to court Latino voters and business leaders like Jeb Bush are tacking left.

For all the attention paid to these moves, however, all of the candidates – even Bush – still have huge gaps in their immigration plans. Virtually the entire field falls into a mushy middle somewhere between comprehensive reform and Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” plan in 2012 and it will take a whole lot of tough questions to tease out their final position.

For immigration reform groups trying to evaluate the field, it’s maddening. There is no policy fight this primary filled with more useless jargon, buzzwords, and slogans aimed at deliberately hiding candidates’ positions. Look at the latest MSNBC/Telemundo poll and it’s easy to see why: 57% of Americans and 78% of Latinos – a key voting bloc in 2016 – support the president’s decision to protect millions of immigrants from deportation, but the position is out of bounds with conservative activists who can determine the GOP nominee. Ditto with legislation to grant a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which consistently draws majority support in surveys.

“Many candidates are trying to find a place where they can evade, throw sand in the faces of their audience, and maintain some flexibility going into the general election,” Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, told reporters on Wednesday.

Now, as the 2016 race gets under way, Sharry’s group is warning Republicans that they won’t be able to get away with anything less than fully detailed proposals. They’ve even produced a guide for voters on how to grill candidates with questions most likely to yield specific answers.

Here are some of the biggest outstanding policy issues the candidates will need to resolve before the election’s out:

  1. What exactly is “amnesty”? The most explosive word in the entire debate is “amnesty,” a word that has no agreed-upon meaning and that even the most pro-reform Republicans and Democrats say they don’t support anyway.

It’s a useless phrase that tells voters nothing about policy and is largely meant to reassure conservative voters in the hopes they won’t read the fine print and ask any further questions. Does it mean, as hardline anti-immigration activists argue, entertaining any legal status for undocumented immigrants at all rather than deporting them en masse? Then even Ted Cruz is for amnesty. Does “amnesty” mean, as reformers argue, providing a path to citizenship that doesn’t include a background check or penalties? Then President Obama is against amnesty.

Rand Paul’s new campaign website is a perfect case study in how to deploy “the A-word” while winking to reformers at the same time. His issues page on immigration begins with a denunciation of “amnesty” in the title and first sentence, then goes on to add that “before issuing any visas or starting the legal immigration process, we must first ensure that our border is secure.” If you’re not following the immigration debate closely, you might not even get that he’s referring to visas and a “legal immigration process” for undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

For candidates like Scott Walker, who recently ruled out a path to citizenship, the biggest question is what they plan to do instead with the 11 million undocumented immigrants still in the country without tripping their definition of “amnesty.” Would they endorse legal status short of citizenship? Or does everyone have to leave?

Read the piece in its entirety here.