President Obama’s report card will hardly show high marks when it comes to immigration. Even though he supported comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act, he has so far been unsuccessful in convincing Congress to do the same. Under his watch, deportations reached a record high of 400,000 per year, although there are signs that these numbers are going down after a policy change encouraging prosecutorial discretion in immigration enforcement last year.
While President Obama asks for five more years to fix the broken immigration system, the Republican candidates have been busy showing how serious they are when it comes to immigration by taking a general hard-line stance.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney opposes the Dream Act and any measure that acts as a “magnet” of amnesty, such as in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.
Romney also supports a national identification card system which, in combination with a national E-verify system, would lay the groundwork for “self-deportation”, i.e. when people decide to go back to their home countries because they don’t have the legal documentation to allow them to work in the United States.
At the debate in Arizona recently, Romney expressed that the draconian law that the state has been known for – which would have allowed the police to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant – is a model law worthy of being copied by other states. He added that he would lift the current administration’s legal challenges to the law on his first day in office. The law’s author, Kris Kobach, is his adviser on immigration.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum similarly has a stern approach to immigration. He wants to step up employer enforcement and supports the deportation of undocumented workers. Like Romney, he wants the U.S.-Mexico border finished. At the Arizona debate, he declared support for the measures taken by the state in combating illegal immigration.
Santorum has alluded to the experience of his parents as Italian immigrants in explaining his position on legal immigration and has described an amnesty program as false compassion.
Romney and Santorum, who both support a mass deportation policy, have criticized Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his moderate approach to illegal immigration.
Gingrich has advocated for a humane stance toward undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States for a very long time. He proposes a middle ground between amnesty and deportation in the form of a legalization procedure that would give legal status to the undocumented but not lead to U.S. citizenship.
He has also said that he supports “half” of the Dream Act, i.e. children of illegal immigrants can become U.S. citizens after serving in the military.
Texas Representative Ron Paul, who wants to distinguish himself as the civil libertarian among the candidates, opposes amnesty and instead supports legal immigration reform and a system that grants beneficial status to the undocumented as opposed to deportation.
While he does not believe in a fence, Paul wants U.S. troops abroad recalled so that they can be stationed at the US-Mexico border. He has also called for an end to birthright citizenship and making English the official language of the U.S.
The GOP candidates know that it is already crunch time and they have drawn their lines on immigration issues.
Some Republican strategists, however, have expressed concern that the candidates’ tough talk may alienate the fast-growing Hispanic population and harm the party in the long run. Although their firm stance on immigration may please their conservative base, the candidates might be overlooking the immigrant electorate, particularly the Hispanic population whose vote may prove crucial this coming November.