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Immigration Forms Sharp Divide as 2016 Presidential Field Takes Shape

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Democrats Stepping Up AS GOP Contenders Step (Way) Back

Immigration is shaping up as one of the sharpest points of contrast between the two parties’ 2016 presidential fields.  While Democrats are embracing pro-immigrant policies and leaning into the new politics of immigration at a never-before-seen level, Republicans seem intent to ignore the lessons of the 2012 election cycle and the specific immigration advice contained in the RNC’s infamous post-election autopsy report. Just look at the evidence piling up from the campaign trail this week:

On the Democratic side, presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton has opted for an aggressive “lean in” strategy in regards to immigration and engagement with the new American electorate.  Meanwhile, yesterday during an event at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley continued to highlight his pro-immigrant record and said that he would “pursue immigration reform in his first 100 days in office and would use executive action, if needed.” As a number of analyses have highlighted, O’Malley views immigration and Latino voter outreach as a central plank of his campaign.  And former Rhode Island Governor and GOP Senator Lincoln Chafee, who switched parties and is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, highlighted his support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants during his announcement speech yesterday.

On the Republican sideTexas Governor Rick Perry is set to announce his second run for the GOP nomination today.  On immigration, Gov. Perry seems to have taken away the wrong lessons from his 2012 run and is now emphasizing his “toughness” on the border and on immigration – including by scapegoating refugee children fleeing violence in Central America, and fear-mongering about a supposedly “out of control border” to shore up his hardline bona fides (Read a detailed America’s Voice overview of Gov. Rick Perry’s record and rhetoric on immigration here.)  Of course, Perry’s border fear-mongering flies in the face of the actual reality of the situation.  A recent front-page story in the Washington Post by Jerry Markon noted that “illegal immigration flows have fallen to their lowest level in at least two decades.”  The article pointed out that the number of undocumented immigrants in America has declined in recent years, signifying that more people are leaving than arriving, and that those remaining are older and more settled.  This is further powerful evidence that unauthorized migration across the U.S.-Mexico border has sharply declined and that the real issue on immigration policy remains what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in America.

Similarly, Gov. Walker continues to advance a mixture of incoherent and hardline policies on immigration.  In a story titled, “Scott Walker Dead Set Against Path to Citizenship But Has No Solution for What to Do with 11 Million Undocumented Residents,” Alex Leary of the Tampa Bay Times notes that Walker, “said he adamantly opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but was vague in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times about what should be done with the 11 million people already in the U.S.”  The piece quotes Gov. Walker saying, “My belief is that because the system is so broken, we need to do the other things I mention before we can even begin to start talking about what the president and the next Congress can do,” referring to the “secure the border first” excuse for inaction.

According to Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice, “While the Democrats speak with one pro-immigrant voice on immigration, the Republican field seems mostly intent to repeat the mistakes of 2012.  We know the move well — tack right in the primary to feed an anti-immigrant base and destroy your general election viability in the process.  Virtually every GOP candidate is either in full retreat or has trimmed his or her support for any form of immigration reform.  Clearly, Democrats have read the RNC’s autopsy report and taken it to heart, while the intended audience—GOP presidential hopefuls—have not.  if they don’t learn the mistakes of 2012, they’ll be doomed to repeat the results of 2012.”