Immigration Dangerous Topic as GOP Kicks Off Presidential Election Season in Iowa

the potential candidates get provoked into a reckless statement on immigration, they may never recover. Here’s the run down on their views on immigration
Immigration Dangerous Topic as GOP Kicks Off Presidential Election Season in Iowa
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) speaks at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 24, 2015, . (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Petr Svab

In less than a year, Iowa residents will cast their votes to pick presidential candidates and so, if one considers candidacy, it is about time to score some early points with Iowans.

As an unmistakably conservative state, it is only fitting that Iowa Republican Senator Steve King kick off the election season with a Freedom Summit on Saturday in the state’s capital Des Moines.

Hundreds of politicians, activists, and journalists attend the summit expecting to hear speeches of at least seven potential Republican candidates:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Texas Senator Ted Cruz
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
Texas ex-Governor Rick Perry
Arkansas ex-Governor Mike Huckabee
Pennsylvania ex-Senator Rick Santorum
Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon from Maryland

For the speakers, the summit is an opportunity to put forth their agenda and amass publicity–but not without hazards.

In Iowa, Do as Iowans Do

Iowa provides a majorly conservative crowd, tempting complaisant candidates to utter radical quotes that would haunt them for the rest of the run.

“This is the beginning of the selection process for the planks of the platform for the next president of the United States,” Senator King told MSNBC. “The speeches they give–some of that will live to and through the general election.”

King represents a catalyst for one of the most contentious topics–immigration. King sent ripples even through his own party two years ago when he said that for every valedictorian there are one hundred marijuana smugglers among young illegal immigrants.

And earlier this week, King criticized President Barack Obama for inviting a “deportable” as a guest to the State of the Union address.

If the potential candidates get provoked into a reckless statement on immigration, they may just never recover.

Mitt Romney’s past experience may speak to that. His single remark in Florida in 2011 that the solution to illegal immigration is self-deportation was a major blow to his presidential run. In the end he only got 27 percent of the increasingly important Latino votes. The soundbite is still widely quoted today.

Not that Romney had a liberal stance on immigration otherwise, but the Florida remark may have been one critical step too far.

Romney, eyeing another candidacy, is skipping the Iowa summit this year.

As is Jeb Bush, the Republican frontrunner for the presidency.

It’s obvious for Bush to skip the summit, according to Kathleen R. Arnold, DePaul University political science professor. Bush supports in-state college tuition subsidies for illegal immigrants and even wants to grant them a path to citizenship or at least to legal status. Not only would he have a hard time defending his positions in Iowa, he would even run a risk of making many voters elsewhere angry.

While Jeb Bush went to significant lengths to differentiate himself from his brother George W., Arnold notes the brothers overlap on immigration.

Iowa Immigration Poll Results, Partnership for a New American Economy, June 29-30, 2014.
Iowa Immigration Poll Results, Partnership for a New American Economy, June 29-30, 2014.

In terms of views on immigration for the potential candidates who will be in Iowa, here’s the run down.

Chris Christie

Chris Christie is an unwritten book so far. He supported in-state college tuition subsidies for illegal immigrants, but dodged the issue of immigration on the federal level. He mentioned multiple times the federal immigration policy is “broken,” but never offered a solution. If running for president, he would need to provide more detail, but the Iowa summit may not be the right place to try that out.

“If I were him I would stay as silent as I can on the issue, until I’m pushed,” Arnold said.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American, celebrates legal immigration. But has no leniency for the illegal ones. He wants better border protection and opposes any kind of path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Scott Walker

Scott Walker has a partially nebulous approach. He said he wants to first change the system for legal immigration so people who follow the rules can get in faster, especially high-skilled workers. After all people on the legal immigration waiting list are in, then he would consider some kind of a pathway to a legal status for illegal immigrants already in the country.

It’s worth noting Wisconsin agriculture is dependent on illegal workers and Walker is also backed by the Koch brothers, who support a more open immigration policy.

Rick Perry

Rick Perry may just have the recipe for turning Latinos Republican. Deploying 1,000 National Guard troops on the Mexican border, he can claim playing tough. On the other hand, he supports in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and has been able to defend it as practical for Texas. Meanwhile, he can play victim of the lack of federal policies given that Texas bears a big share of the repercussions for illegal immigration.

But as a presidential candidate he won’t be able to play the Texas card as strongly. He would become the guy in Washington that a new Texas Governor would blame. He may be able to dodge questions on immigration reform for a bit longer by saying that Congress first need to secure the border, before talking about the reform at all. Again, as the Texas ex-Governor, people would assume he knows what he’s talking about.

Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee, on the other hand, is quite clear on his stance–no path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. They should pay fines for breaking the law and either apply for citizenship or be deported. He would build more fences on the southern border and improve training of Homeland Security agents.

He was criticized in the past by other Republicans for supporting a state bill in 2005 that would grant in-state college tuition subsidies to illegal immigrants. The bill failed and Huckabee doesn’t seem to be willing to make such a concession again. That may not stop his opponents in the primaries from using it against him, should he decide to run.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum may see eye to eye with Steve King on immigration and thus score some points with the Iowa audience. He’s one of the hardliners calling for no benefits, no amnesty, and no pathways for illegal immigrants. The thing he wants more of is border security. Actually, Santorum wants less legal immigrants as well, blaming them for taking Americans’ jobs.

Ben Carson

Ben Carson is a rather unusual potential candidate. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush for being the first to separate Siamese twins joined at the head and recently gained substantial media attention for his political views as well.

His stance on immigration is more nuanced. He supports comprehensive reform. First order of business–ramp up border security. Next, establish guest worker programs, meaning everyone can work and pay taxes in the country, but won’t gain citizenship. Such programs already exist, but are only for temporary jobs and serve only about 120,000 workers, a fraction of more than 8 million workers in the county illegally. Carson would give out all jobs unappealing to Americans through such a program. At the same time he would crack down on employers using illegal workers.

A similar type of reform was tried but failed to pass in 2013. Since then Republicans adopted a “piecemeal” approach–to pass pieces of legislation one at a time. Yet no significant piece has yet to pass. And with Republicans busy condemning Obama for sidestepping them with executive orders, it’s hard to foresee any progress before 2016.

Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
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