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Rick Santorum carries the torch against legal immigration

Updated

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on Thursday credited himself with being the first presidential candidate to take a hard-line stance to limit legal immigration – even before Donald Trump entered the 2016 race and shoved the rest of the GOP field further to the right.

“Until this summer, I was the only candidate who had a message focused on helping American workers by putting common sense limits on this surge of immigrants,” Santorum said during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. “This is not anti-immigrant, this is pro-worker, especially for those who are most affected by waves of new workers – recent immigrants, minorities and younger workers.”

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Indeed, for a time Santorum was the lone voice among the GOP presidential hopefuls pressing to reduce legal immigration by as much as 25%. But when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced that he too wanted to rethink the aboveboard process for new immigrants – a flip from previously supporting an expansion to legal immigration – his move marked a turning point in the Republican presidential race in widening the gap from candidates willing to take a more welcoming tact toward immigrants. That divide was blown wide open once Trump entered the race, sending candidates scrambling as they watched the celebrity real estate mogul gain remarkable momentum by firing up the far-right flank of the base.

The current immigration debate is even a departure from the hard-line ”self-deportation” platform that Mitt Romney took during the 2012 presidential election. The position ended up working against Republicans during the last presidential cycle, with Romney losing 73% of the Latino vote to President Obama for supporting a policy designed to make life so inhospitable toward undocumented immigrants that they would want to leave. Party elites later determined that Republicans must make inroads with Latino voters.

But a glance at Santorum’s policy proposals Thursday shows making those inroads would be an uphill battle.

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Santorum proposes overhauling the H1-B visa program, limiting the number of high-skilled workers allowed into the U.S. He said he would suspend border-crossing cards if Mexico does not cooperate with tough enforcement, which could have a stiff economic impact on the communities at the border. Santorum supports eliminating birthright citizenship as an “incentive” for illegal immigration, a near-impossible political feat that would require a constitutional amendment. 

“I think we need to eliminate those types of incentives that encourage people to come to this country illegally,” Santorum said. “But there are many things we need to do ahead of that. It wouldn’t be my priority.” 

Santorum also perpetuated a common misconception that undocumented immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans. “These immigrants are largely unskilled and low-skilled labor competing for the same job that 74% of Americans who do not have a college degree are looking for,” he said. But experts have debunked the myth time after time, showing that employment is not a zero-sum game and that immigrant workers don’t compete with, but rather complement, the skills of U.S.-born workers.

While addressing the enforcement mechanisms to limit the number of people entering the country illegally in the future, Santorum shied away from addressing what he would do for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. It has been a major sticking point dividing the GOP presidential candidates, ranging from Trump’s plan to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who supports a legal status for certain immigrants. 

Santorum blamed Obama’s executive actions on immigration for causing the surge of unaccompanied minors that overwhelmed federal resources at the border last summer. He vowed to end those programs, which are currently tied up in federal court and would offer a temporary legal status to as many as 4 million undocumented immigrants.

He condemned Democrats for characterizing the Republican debate around immigration as “xenophobic football” and suggested Democrats had an ulterior motive to supporting a pathway to citizenship.

“Democrats like Hillary Clinton say they are for the American worker, yet they demand amnesty and huge increases in the number of immigrants for one overriding reason: votes, which of course, leads to political power,” Santorum said.

Immigration Policy, Immigration Reform and Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum carries the torch against legal immigration

Updated