By Jonathan Easley - 03/05/15 06:00 AM EST
Prospective Republican presidential hopefuls are going to great lengths to recast their immigration pasts.
Many, like Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSenate rivals gear up for debates Rubio: End of Obama's term could be 'most damaging yet' Fifteen years since pivotal executive order, STORM Act could help fight terror finance MORE (Fla.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, are fully repenting on their past support for plans to grant legal status to illegal immigrants.
Congressional Republicans’ failed battle to overturn President Obama’s executive orders sparing millions from deportation has only heightened urgency among the likely GOP field.
“The issue is searing hot right now; it’s hot as the sun,” said influential conservative Iowa radio host Steve Deace. “Any conversation about immigration [among Republicans] that doesn’t focus on what’s best for Americans, the rule of law and border security is almost self-immolation right now.”
Walker admitted on Fox News Sunday that he is completely reversing his previous position that immigrants could become citizens if the right penalties and waiting periods were in place.
“My view has changed,” Walker said. “I’m flat out saying it. Candidates can say that … I don’t believe in amnesty.”
At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Rubio sought to make amends with the grassroots base skeptical of him ever since he championed the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform package.
“It wasn’t very popular,” Rubio admitted on stage in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.
“You have 10 or 12 million people in this country, many of whom have lived here for longer than a decade, have not otherwise violated our law other than immigration laws, I get all that,” he continued. “But what I’ve learned is you can’t even have a conversation about that until people believe and know, not just believe but it’s proven to them that future illegal immigration will be controlled.”
Rubio has been backing away from his support of the bill for some time, but such a public mea culpa was striking.
“The midpoint on the Republican scale has moved to the right on immigration,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “I think, at one time, opposing the Rubio bill was outside the mainstream, and now opposing the bipartisan bill is well within the mainstream. It shows how far the debate has moved.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has also seen the light since his last run for president.
The former Southern Baptist preacher previously expressed support for a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the country illegally. But in January, he became the first potential presidential candidate to sign a pledge to oppose a path to citizenship for anyone in the country illegally.
At CPAC over the weekend, candidate after candidate took the stage to hammer home their conservative bona fides on immigration.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was criticized as soft on immigration during his failed 2012 run, thundered about his strong record on border security and called illegal immigration a “clear and present danger to the health and safety of all Americans.”
Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThis week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress Five things to watch for at Trump-Clinton debate Week ahead: Funding fight dominates Congress MORE (Texas) criticized Republican leadership in Congress for “cutting a deal with [Minority Leader] Harry ReidHarry ReidThis week: Shutdown deadline looms over Congress Week ahead: Spending fight shifts from Zika to Flint Black Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP MORE [D-Nev.] and the Democrats to give in on executive amnesty” in the DHS funding fight.
At CPAC, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush didn’t back off his support for a path to legal status for some illegal immigrants, a long-held belief that still puts him squarely to the left of his rivals.
Instead, he highlighted areas where he and the base agree on immigration.
“A great country needs to enforce the borders for national security purposes, for public health purposes and the rule of law,” Bush said. “First and foremost, we need to do that.”
Bush also criticized Obama’s executive actions as presidential overreach, a rallying cry among all Republicans. But for the most reverent party members, it won’t be enough.
The next litmus test is whether a potential candidate supports any path to legalization, and few of the contenders get away clean.
“There is a very small number of candidates whose hands have not been stained by amnesty,” Deace said.
Cruz, former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal might be the only potential candidates whom conservatives consider original purists on the issue.
The rest of the field has either sent mixed signals, moderated their positions or expressed support for some type of path to legalization.
“I could envision a scenario where a debate moderator asks the candidates to raise their hands if they support a path to citizenship or legalization and nobody raises their hands except Bush,” Mackowiak said.
Not all Republicans are happy with the direction the party is headed, fearing it could be a repeat of Mitt Romney’s move to the right on the issue during the 2012 primary campaign.
The eventual GOP nominee was never able to drift back to the center for the general election and ultimately lost Hispanic voters by 44 percentage points.
Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership at the conservative American Principles Project, is among those warning the current trend for likely candidates could sink the GOP in November 2016.
“Sadly, it seems we’re seeing again a move toward the restrictionist extreme as the primaries are about to begin,” said Aguilar. “This is problematic and gives the impression we haven’t learned from the past.”
He says his group has polled likely Iowa Republican voters and found that, while border security is a priority, most are supportive of a path to legalization. That could give some of the likely candidates room to hold the center, for now, but he fears louder voices on the right are drowning out general election concerns.
“They’re listening to a small minority of restrictionists who penetrated the conservative movement and created the perception that the base is anti-immigrant, even though it’s not,” said Aguilar. “But unfortunately, perception is reality.”