The Republican presidential primary debate this past Tuesday helped to better define where the various top-tier candidates stand on immigration. Jeb Bush, who is wildly unpopular with Republican voters, reiterated his support for blanket amnesty for twelve million illegal aliens. John Kasich went even further than Bush in the debate, calling illegal aliens “law abiding” and denouncing Americans who support enforcement efforts. While neither Bush nor Kasich at this point look to have a realistic shot at the nomination, in large part due to their positions on immigration, they should get credit for being honest about their intentions. Neither man pretends that he believes the interest of the American people takes precedence over the demands of illegal aliens (or probably more correctly the demands of donors who fund their campaigns.)
In contrast, of course, is Donald Trump, who on Tuesday night emphatically said “We have no choice” when it comes to the deportation of illegal aliens. It would be helpful if Trump were to clarify his position on how he would approach immigration enforcement. He did mention the day after the debate that he would create a “deportation force” to deal with illegal aliens, without acknowledging that the Department of Homeland Security exists, in part, to enforce our nation’s immigration laws (though in fairness to Trump, under the Obama Administration, DHS has facilitated the entry and settlement of illegal alien in the U.S.)
Taking what may be the middle ground in the exchange over illegal immigration was Ted Cruz, who said it was offensive that Bush and Kasich label hard-working Americans who are being hurt by illegal immigration (and those of us who want to prevent this) as “anti-immigrant” for wanting illegal aliens to be subject to U.S. law. Cruz, who has his own vulnerabilities on immigration, no doubt helped himself with his comments.
The Fox moderators were rightfully criticized for not drawing Rubio into this discussion (which Mario Bartiromo has since regretted) being that his single legislative accomplishment in the Senate was the Gang of Eight immigration bill. Rubio may have been let off the hook on Tuesday, but the boost Cruz received for speaking up for working Americans is clearly seen as a threat by the Rubio campaign. On Thursday, Rubio said that he and Cruz have essentially the same position when it comes to amnesty – not an accurate statement nor a tactically smart move. Rubio co-sponsored a bill that not only would have given amnesty to virtually every illegal alien in the U.S., it would have allowed individuals who had already been deported to come back into the U.S. immediately as permanent residents, before any enforcement measures were put into place. Rubio’s bill also would have tripled legal immigration and doubled the number of guest workers admitted annually. Cruz did not just vote against the bill but he signed a letter with, among others, Jeff Sessions, the most stalwart opponent of the legislation, which said that Rubio’s bill would “leave our borders unsecure and our immigration system deeply dysfunctional.” One may question Cruz’s political motivation for opposing Rubio’s bill but it is a mischaracterization, putting it nicely, for Rubio to equate his positon on immigration with that of Cruz’s.
This is an argument that Rubio cannot win. Cruz does need to clarify where he stands on guest worker and legal immigration limits, but he has left himself room to move away from some of his earlier expansionist statements and towards the political center [UPDATE: Cruz has released a more detailed immigration plan]. However, Rubio’s positions are already clearly established. He helped to write the Gang of Eight bill and then went on a national tour to try and and get it to President Obama’s desk. For many Republican voters, Rubio’s name is synonymous with amnesty. Someone even wrote an amusing song about it. Picking a fight with Cruz on immigration won’t end well for Rubio, but it is good for the American people, who are finally seeing a presidential campaign in which immigration issues are at the forefront. With the H-1B guest worker controversy heating up, there is good chance we may see the debate over immigration policy carry over into the general election. This is encouraging.
What is not so encouraging is the media’s inability, or unwillingness, to connect immigration policy to the struggles of so many Americans who are looking for work; or who are working and struggling to provide for their families. In the Democratic primary debates, this issue has been shunted aside, even by Bernie Sanders, who, until 2013 opposed blanket amnesty and mass immigration. And the only reason it has come up in the Republican debates is that the candidates have made it an issue that the moderators can no longer avoid.
ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Feb 19th 2016 @ 10:22am EST