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Republicans Have A Serious Immigration Challenge

On immigration, Republican presidential candidates can’t say one thing to the donors and another to the base.


The difference in opinion between Republican elites and the base of their party on the topic of immigration is very real, but that difference is even more politically significant when you compare it to the views of the country at large. You can see it in all sorts of poll data. The Gallup numbers on this point from a few months ago illustrate it clearly. Gallup found that 39% of Americans want to see levels of immigration (legal and illegal) decrease, while 54% want the same or higher levels of immigration (33% same, 7% higher, 14% dissatisfied but want same which I assume is the throw your hands in the air portion). That 39% figure is a historic low on the question, compared to levels that were higher than 50% during the George W. Bush presidency.


But even if the public at large is less in favor of lower immigration levels, the Republican Party has much stronger views on the subject, and this creates a natural tension between what potential candidates might say to win a GOP primary and what they may do to win over Independents in a general election. Gallup reports:

“More than four out of every five self-identified Republicans say they are dissatisfied with the current level of immigration (84%), a figure that towers above the number of independents (54%) or Democrats (44%) who feel similarly. Moreover, the number of GOP affiliates saying they are dissatisfied on this issue swelled by 19 percentage points compared with 2014.”

Consider this as you read the unsurprising news that Marco Rubio is touting his controversial immigration record to donors.

“Even as Rubio labors to publicly distance himself from the legislation so loathed by conservative primary voters, he and his aides have privately highlighted this line in his resume when soliciting support from the deep-pocketed donors in the party’s more moderate business wing.”

Well, of course that makes sense politically – you won’t exactly find rah-rah support for what Rubio tried to do on immigration in 91% white Iowa. Instead, you’ll find it for comments like those from Scott Walker. But to be a candidate that unites both that moderate/business wing and the base of the party as a nominee, there’s a need to speak to both sides, and to achieve a level of trust on the immigration issue that is lacking.

The immigration issue provides an easy opportunity for some early populist chest-beating in the presidential stakes. But when it comes time to win a general election, too much of that talk would prove an anchor for any candidate wanting to reach beyond the typical Republican lines to win Independent and Hispanic voters. That’s why talk of lowering legal immigration levels out of concerns for the American working man are so toxic, and interpreted as code words and dog whistles by Hispanics.

What’s more, it’s a completely pointless discussion to have given the current inability of the government to do anything about levels of illegal immigration. I think the data is clear: Low-wage migrant workers temporarily depress wages in their specific sector, but raise them in the long term through the aggregate effects of economic growth. But that debate is beside the point: Markets are already dictating where people move despite the laws. Arguing about legal immigration levels is like debating whether you should change the oil at 15,000 or 30,000 miles in a car that is currently on fire.

The safest Republican position on immigration heading into the general campaign is one that highlights the weaknesses of Democrats on the issue as opposed to catering too much to either the base or the business community. Don’t be Steve King, and don’t be the Gang of Eight. Instead, make the case for steps to secure the border, based on our need for health, safety, and security, as a necessary prerequisite for any reforms; and outline a path to legal status – not citizenship – for those who are already here. This is, as it happens, pretty much what I understand Marco Rubio’s position to be now, where he ended up after getting burned by going too far in one direction. But all the candidates face a challenge here: they will need to convince voters they aren’t just telling donors one thing while saying something else on the stump. This could prove difficult, particularly if it’s exactly what they’re doing.