Law enforcement agents watch for immigrants crossing the Rio Grande illegally into the United States on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas.
Photo by John Moore/Getty

3 big immigration questions the GOP 2016 field must answer

Updated

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. 

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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.

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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? 

2. What does “secure the border first” actually mean?  A typical line from candidates is that they favor (or at least won’t rule out) legal status for undocumented immigrants – but only after the border is secure. Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, has made this his fallback position after previously backing a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill.

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But what does a “secure border” even mean? Congress has doubled the border patrol multiple times over the years and Rubio’s Senate bill would have doubled it once again while adding an array of new enforcement measures into the mix as well. Nor have previous rounds of border measures proved ineffective: The total estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the country has actually decreased in recent years. The most recent Pew survey put the population at 11.3 million last year, down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007, and holding steady over the last several years.

Sharry and other pro-reform activists insist that they’re not against border enforcement – they supported the Senate bill, which made citizenship contingent on a crackdown on illegal hiring going into effect along with that new pricey border plan. But they fear that plans to separate the two components and tackle legalization when people feel comfortable is an excuse to dodge a politically thorny issue indefinitely while deportations continue unabated.

Even Bush, the most overtly pro-immigration reform candidate in the field, needs to answer more questions before activists are sure of his position. He’s said in recent interviews he favors securing the border first, but it’s not clear yet whether he’d accept it as part of comprehensive package that includes provisional legal status for undocumented immigrants or whether he’s taking the Rubio view.

“The most fleshed out plan clearly is Jeb Bush’s, but we’re very concerned,” Sharry said.

A spokeswoman for Bush, Kristy Campbell, did not immediately respond to an email seeking clarification. 

3. What if legislation fails? The entire Republican presidential field is opposed to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, which include a 2012 order (DACA) granting protections to young undocumented immigrants known as DREAMers and a more recent 2014 order (DAPA), currently held up in court, that would provide work permits to up to 5 million undocumented migrants. 

Candidates like Rubio bristle at the notion that just because they favor ending DACA, say, they favor deporting DREAMers. They just want to pass their legislation to do it instead.

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But Congress has tried to pass legislation and failed – over and over – for the last decade, both under President George W. Bush and under President Obama. House Republicans have shown no indication they’re willing to entertain legislation that would create a path to legal status for anyone – even military veterans. What happens to people who receive protections from the White House if the same script plays out and conservatives kill the new president’s reform plan or they’re forced to shelve it to focus on other priorities first?

“These are not small issues,” Sharry said. “If the Republican nominee says we’re going to rescind the executive actions, take 5 million work permits away from undocumented immigrants who most Americans say should stay here … that’s going to be a huge defining issue for the fastest growing groups in the country.”

Immigration Policy, Immigration Reform, Jeb Bush and Scott Walker

3 big immigration questions the GOP 2016 field must answer

Updated