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Immigration, the GOP’s Kryptonite, Divides and Drains the GOP

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Most are Silent On Hillary’s Move; Graham Says Citizenship a Must; Crowd Cheers When Immigrants Called “Rats and Roaches”

This past weekend offered another reminder why and how immigration reform is the GOP’s kryptonite: they touch it at their own peril; and when they do it divides them, befuddles them and drains them of power.

Many Republican presidential candidates headed south to attend this past weekend’s South Carolina Freedom Summit. Coming just days after Hillary Clinton threw down on immigration reform and challenged the GOP field to clarify where they stand on the issue, most of the leading contenders dodged the issue altogether. For example, both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio gave speeches on Saturday that were silent on immigrationcontinuing many days’ worth of crickets. Evidently, for candidates professing to be for reform “after the border is secured first,” saying nothing seems a better strategy than spouting the deliberately vague doublespeak that says “no, never – and not now” to GOP voters opposed to reform, and “yes, probably – down the road” to donors, Latinos, Asian-Americans and the majority of Americans who want a comprehensive solution now.

One candidate wasn’t afraid of the issue.  Rick Santorum called for reductions in legal immigration, an agenda promoted by Alabama’s Jeff Sessions and in line with Scott Walker’s newly-minted hardline position. It’s a reminder that for those hoping to escape the primaries with the flexibility to pivot towards a more pro-reform emphasis, others in the Republican presidential field are intent on pulling the immigration debate to the right.

Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham staked out the most centrist position in the field.  A longtime and unwavering advocate of immigration reform with a path to citizenship, Graham had much to say about his and his party’s approach to the issue, as reported in this piece by The Hill:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted Thursday Republicans will lose the 2016 presidential election without major immigration reform, saying the party is struggling to win minority voters. “The only way we lose this election is if we beat ourselves and that is very possible, but we are getting creamed with non-white voters,” Graham, a likely 2016 presidential contender, told host Susan Page on USA Today’s “Capital Download.” “We’ll lose,” he said, if the party doesn’t improve its prospects with minorities.

“I mean, we’ve got a big hole we’ve dug with Hispanics,” he added. “We’ve gone from 44 percent of the Hispanic vote [in the 2004 presidential election] to 27 percent [in 2012]. “You’ll never convince me … it’s not because of the immigration debate,” said Graham. Graham said he was “98.6 percent sure” he would seek the Oval Office next year. If he does, the South Carolina lawmaker has made up his mind on immigration reform.

“If I were the president of the United States, I would veto any bill that did not have a pathway to citizenship,” Graham said. “You would have a long, hard path to citizenship… but I want to create that path because I don’t like the idea of millions of people living in America for the rest of their lives being the hired help,” he added. “That’s not who we are.”

Graham also lashed out at Republicans who believe a secure border is necessary before tackling citizenship for illegal immigrants. “That’s not practical,” Graham said of addressing the border before amnesty. “No Democratic Congress is going to give the Republican Party everything we want on border security until you tell them what happens to the 11 million,” he added, referring to the estimated number of illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s immigration remarks from last week continue to generate important analysis.  As we noted last week, while some said that Clinton’s embrace of unabashedly pro-immigrant policies in her Las Vegas remarks placed her on the “left” of the immigration debate, her immigration vision is actually very popular with a broad swath of the American people. Over the weekend, the Washington Post’s political science blog, Monkey Cage, came to just such a conclusion, marshaling recent public opinion studies to conclude, “Hillary Clinton’s Views on Immigration are Entirely Mainstream.”  The authors, Dina Smeltz and Sara McElmurry, write:

Far from being aggressive, liberal and aligned with immigration activists, Clinton’s views are fairly mainstream.  Dramatic shifts in public opinion over the past two decades suggest a real readiness for immigration reform.

… Behind the shift in public opinion are economic and demographic realities.  Immigration from Mexico is at a net zero.  Apprehensions along the Southwest border at their lowest levels since the 1970s, despite last summer’s uptick of child migrants fleeing escalating violence in Central America.

… While many believe that Clinton has thrown down the gauntlet for upcoming immigration debates, survey research suggests that her position is simply in line with the preferences of the majority of the American public and influential opinion leaders.

Unfortunately for Republican candidates seeking to gain traction in the multi-candidate primaries, Republican primary voters lean in the opposite direction of the majority. For example, May 2015 polling from New York Times/CBS News asked about preferred policies for undocumented immigrants.  The options: “allowed to stay in the U.S and eventually apply for citizenship … allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, but not be allowed to apply for citizenship … or … required to leave the U.S.?”  Among all respondents, 57% supported citizenship, 11% supported legalization without citizenship, and 29% supported the “require to leave” option.  Yet among just Republican respondents, the results broke down as follows: 46% supported “required to leave,” 38% supported citizenship, and 12% supported legalization short of citizenship.

This hardline view was on display at the Freedom Summit this past weekend.  According to Huffington Post, the Summit crowd enthusiastically applauded offensive comments by a participant:

“During a focus group led by GOP pollster Frank Luntz at the South Carolina Freedom Summit, the mother-in-law of Citizens United president David Bossie compared immigrants to rats and roaches, to the delight of the audience … Asked by Luntz to give advice to the these candidates, she said:

‘One man, one vote.  People are comin’ in this country across the borders like rats and roaches in the wood pile.  We’ve got a state like Minnesota that says it’s not our business to check ’em out, we just register ’em.  We’ve got to get control.  That’s what they need to know.’

“Her comments drew laughter, whistling, and applause.  Afterwards, Luntz asked the audience if they would vote for Bossie’s mother-in-law for president, which drew louder cheers and applause.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The immigration debate leaves the Republican Party and its leading presidential contenders stuck between an anti-immigrant rock and a demographic hard place. Most candidates lack courage, clarity, and conviction when it comes to immigration policy, and the few that do are attacked for not being sufficiently anti-immigrant. Didn’t they see what happened to Mitt Romney just four years ago?”