Election Day 2016 is more than 800 days away. But with the border crisis showing no sign of abating anytime soon, potential Republican candidates are already positioning themselves in very different ways to try and win over prospective voters on this critical, politically divisive issue.
It's a tricky issue for the GOP. Tens of thousands of immigrants – many of them children from Central America – are illegally crossing America's southern border, and no one quite knows who is to blame and what should be done about it. The GOP has a history of taking a stricter, pro-enforcement stance – with many trying to block any sort of immigration reform at every turn. But that's a harder stance when the immigrants in question are kids fleeing violence.
A strict stance will still likely play well with the conservative base. But it goes against the GOP’s autopsy report following Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, and the party’s acknowledgement that it needed to be more inclusive of minorities -- particularly Latinos -- if it wants to increase its chances of a Republican win in 2016. After all, Obama was catapulted to victory four years ago with the help of Hispanic voters. Just 27% of Latinos voted for Romney in 2012.
Conservative strategist Keith Appell said potential GOP candidates are seeing a huge opportunity to address the nation’s broken immigration strategy, pointing to President Obama’s recent poll numbers on the issue.
“What they need to do is convey strength without being extreme. That’s the trick for the Republicans right now … There’s a happy medium that everyone is trying to find and they’re doing it in different ways,” said Appell, who predicted immigration would be one of the biggest issues in 2016.
Recently, some prospective Republican candidates have drawn a line in the sand. Some others are taking a humanitarian approach. And others are laying low. President Obama is expected to take some sort of executive action in the coming weeks to address the influx of undocumented immigrants in the United States, setting the stages of a likely political firestorm in the lead up to the 2014 midterm elections.
One potential candidate who has made no public plans of crossing the border, even though it’s in his backyard, is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The governor was pummeled by the far right during his presidential bid in 2012 for defending giving in-state tuition breaks to illegal immigrants, saying those who are against the practice don’t have a heart. Now, he’s taking a tougher stance, focusing on the need for border security. Earlier this summer, Perry deployed about 1,000 National Guard troops to curb the influx of illegal immigrants at the border. When recently asked by msnbc what he was doing to address the needs of children, he glossed over the topic, saying “They’re being addressed” and it was “not the bigger issue.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, like Perry, has taken a hardline stance, demanding that Obama end a 2012 initiative he put into place granting temporary deportation reprieve -- so called DREAMERS -- to undocumented youths. In an op-ed for the Texas Tribune published Friday, Cruz charged Obama was holding border security “hostage” in exchange for amnesty.
Earlier this month, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal went to the Texas-Mexico border and said he saw groups of illegal immigrants trying to cross the border in the middle of the day. Jindal has pointed his finger at the president for creating an environment that has allowed people to cross the border illegally. He has said he wants to deport most of the unaccompanied immigrant children and teens who have crossed into the U.S.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seems to be in the helping-hand camp. He will visit Mexico in early September for a trip that his administration says is to “promote increased relationship, job creation and higher education opportunities,” and includes a meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto. The trip is stoking major buzz that Christie is trying to reach out to Latinos, especially after skewering President Obama on his handling of the border crisis. Last month in Colorado, he said the commander-in-chief’s unwillingness to visit the Mexico border was an indication of his “unwillingness to lead.”
Christie has not gone into detail about what the administration should do. But during a recent stop in the political powerhouse state of Iowa, he said not enough is being done to secure the border and doesn’t want to “participate in encouraging” the flood of immigrants. Christie struck a conciliatory tone, saying, “We are an empathetic people in this country and we don’t like seeing people suffer.” Breaking from other governors, Christie has also said he’ll consider housing immigrant children in New Jersey, who are coming from the southern border, on a case-by-case basis.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky will also be grabbing his passport. The ophthalmologist and tea party favorite, who recently returned from Iowa, is going on a medical mission to Guatemala to treat patients who have vision problems. Paul has called the border crisis a “humanitarian nightmare” and has said he is in favor of immigration reform that focuses on border security. “But you can’t do it by royal edict,” he said in Iowa. “We can’t have a king doing it,” he said, referring to Obama.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush urged his fellow GOPers to show “compassion” to the children crossing the border in a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, and said the border crisis should not become “an excuse to defer comprehensive immigration reform.”
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has seemingly backtracked on immigration reform since he was turned on by the far right for endorsing and co-authoring a bi-partisan proposal on the crisis last summer that the party insisted was far too lenient. Cruz, the son of Cuban immigrant parents, has since beefed up his rhetoric on the need for greater border security and saying now Congress needs to take a step-by–step approach to immigration reform instead of a comprehensive strategy. He recently told Fox News that the border crisis wouldn't exist if he were president but initially laid low on the issue -- more than you would expect for someone who spearheaded immigration reform.