IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Scott Walker's turn against legal immigration shakes up 2016

Scott Walker's criticism of legal immigration levels is a turning point in the Republican primaries.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits on April 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum at the 2015 NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits on April 10, 2015 in Nashville, Tenn.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s newfound skepticism of legal immigration levels is a potential turning point in the still nascent presidential race, potentially dragging the Republican Party further to the right than Mitt Romney’s hardline immigration platform in 2012. 

"In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying -- the next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages," Walker said Monday in an interview with Glenn Beck. “It is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today -- what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages, and we need to have that be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.” 

RELATED: GOP 2016 hopefuls clash in New Hampshire

Walker's remarks widened a growing divide in the 2016 field between Republicans like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul who want to expand the party to voting blocs outside their base, especially Latinos, and those, like Walker, who see riling up the party’s older and whiter conservative base as the key to general election success.

Up until Walker’s interview, the only presidential prospect that had expressed concern about legal immigration levels was former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.). Even relatively hardline “amnesty” critics in the 2016 field like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have argued for increasing the number of immigrant visas available each year. In the 2012 GOP contest, border hawks frequently challenged claims they were anti-immigrant by countering they would make legal immigration easier. Mitt Romney, who lost 73% of the Latino vote after proposing undocumented immigrants “self-deport,” told foreign students at American universities through the election that he would “staple a green card to your diploma” as president. Walker had also backed expanded access to legal immigration in the past, prompting his fired former aide Liz Mair to accuse him of an “Olympics-quality flip-flop.” 

For Republicans who have tried to push the party toward immigration reform to confront its disastrous showing with Latinos and Asians in 2012, Walker’s turn stoked fears that their political situation might go from bad to worse.

The reality is we are losing the support of the Hispanic community, the reality is the fastest growing part of our population in America is the Hispanic community.'

“The reality is we are losing the support of the Hispanic community, the reality is the fastest growing part of our population in America is the Hispanic community,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is backing fellow immigration dove Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for president, told msnbc on Tuesday. “We need to address the issue and we need to do it in a constructive fashion or we do not win the 2016 election.” 

But immigration levels have long offered a tempting target for a candidate looking to conquer the field’s right flank and willing to anger GOP donors (the Chamber of Commerce and Koch brothers are strongly pro-immigration) and immigrant communities in the process. Polls have shown Americans, and especially Republicans and independents, are wary of legal immigration even as they favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Advocacy groups like NumbersUSA that are devoted to blocking legal status for undocumented immigrants also call for lower legal immigration levels. Reducing immigration levels is a popular topic in certain corners of conservative media. In addition to Beck and other conservative talk show hosts, Breitbart News has made it a regular focus. The Daily Caller, until recently, employed a reporter whose beat consisted primarily of haranguing politicians over their support for legal immigration.

RELATED: Why are US military veterans being deported?

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who Walker talked with over the phone about the issue and told Beck was an influence, has spent years challenging his colleagues over the issue, arguing that guest worker programs and H1B visas for high-skilled workers drive up unemployment and drag down American labor standards.

“I thought that was a very responsible and commonsense approach,” Sessions told msnbc when asked about Walker’s comments. “It’s unthinkable we admit a million people a year lawfully and nobody’s even willing to discuss whether that’s the right number and if we have within it the right makeup of skills and education levels,” he added. 

As Sessions likes to point out, it’s not just the conservative base that has raised objections over the issue, either. Major unions, led by the AFL-CIO, are also dead set against legislative proposals to expand H1B visas for high-skilled employees and critical of guest worker programs for lower-skilled workers. Big tech companies, represented by groups like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s, argue that they can’t find qualified applicants without looking abroad and the resultant economic boost helps everyone. The Chamber of Commerce and other trade groups argue low-skilled immigrant workers take jobs Americans are unwilling to do at any price. Labor organizations and populist conservatives argue that businesses are only interested in foreign workers because they’re willing to work for lower wages with fewer benefits. Unions reached a compromise deal with the Chamber of Commerce in 2013 on guest workers and backed the Senate’s bipartisan comprehensive bill, but with that legislation dead they’ve taken to protesting more narrow proposals focused on work visas alone.

One prime target is the I-Squared Act, which would raise the cap for H1B visas and make it easier for qualifying foreign workers to bring their children and spouses along with them. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a co-sponsor of the 2015 iteration, setting up a potential clash with Walker in the GOP debates.

RELATED: A crucial test for Obama's executive action

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a sponsor of the bill, bristled at the notion that an increase in STEM workers (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) would negatively affect Americans.

“That’s poppycock,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “We know that when we graduate PhDs, masters degrees, engineers, we don’t have enough of any of those.”

To Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, Walker’s remarks served as a warning to GOP leaders of the cost of inaction on comprehensive immigration reform.

“With no constructive place to go, they’re going to end up in a destructive place,” Noorani said. “They’re heading further right than Mitt Romney."