Republicans Tiptoe On Immigration

By Andrea Salazar

Republicans are struggling to find their footing on immigration as they vie for the Latino vote in 2012.

From GOP presidential candidates to members of Congress, immigration has been a hot talking point despite no legislative action on the issue this year. In particular, comments suggesting a more “humane” approach to immigration have brought attention to candidates Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry for straying from the hardline anti-amnesty stance most conservative candidates have taken.

“They’re all indications of a struggle within the Republican party,” said Angela Kelley, vice president of Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. “I think they’re trying to figure out who they want to be to Latino voters at a time that they’re also pretty eager to give a lot of red meat to Republican primary voters. And perspective of the two groups on the issue of immigration is very different.”

During a Nov. 22 CNN presidential debate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country if they have been in the U.S. for 25 years or more and have strong ties to the community.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century,” Gingrich said. “I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”

He isn’t the first GOP presidential candidate to get attention for his stance on immigration. Texas Gov. Rick Perry saw his poll numbers dip after defending his signing of the Texas DREAM Act – a law allowing undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition.

“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said at the Sept. 22 GOP presidential debate. “We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society.”

Most of the GOP presidential candidates disagreed, though, arguing that in-state tuition credits are incentives for illegal immigration. That’s not to say that Gingrich and Perry have changed their views on securing the border or from supporting the anti-immigration laws in Arizona and the South.

From leading the pack with 28 percentage points before the debate, according to a Quinnipiac University poll from Sept. 22, Perry’s numbers have since dropped to 7 percent, according to a Dec. 13 Gallup poll.

Unlike Perry, Gingrich has continued to see his numbers rise. According to a Gallup poll, he sits atop the race with 31 percent approval rating.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform – an organization against amnesty for illegal immigrants – argues that Gingrich’s plan is a limited form of amnesty that would cost the government more money.

“A lot of the candidates so far have been more or less all over the map on the immigration issue. They’ve clearly underestimated the public’s appetite for a clear, no compromise solution,” said FAIR Spokesperson Bob Dane. “Americans want to hear a candidate state for the record that they won’t support amnesty in any form not now, not later for any reason.”

According to FAIR, illegal immigrants cost U.S. taxpayers $113 billion a year. On the other hand, the Immigration Policy Center reported that states collected $11.2 billion in taxes from illegal immigrants.

But presidential candidates aren’t the only ones making headlines with their stance on immigration. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told his party last month to change its rhetoric on immigration, saying “The Republican Party should not be labeled as the anti-illegal immigration party. Republicans need to be the pro-legal immigration party.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) echoed those sentiments during an interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley in early December.

Democrats in Congress, however, don’t have high expectations for action on immigration any time soon.

“Overwhelmingly the position of the Republican party is one which one doesn’t recognize the practicalities and the opportunities of both creating greater national security, improving the national economy and doing what is right and allowing people to earn their way back legally into the system. I haven’t seen much movement except for Mr. Gingrich,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said.

The last controversial immigration measure voted on in Congress was the DREAM Act – a bill that would have provided undocumented students with a path to legal residency if they had been brought to the United States before age 16, graduated from a U.S. high school and went to college or joined the military. That bill died in the Senate after passing in the House in December 2010.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez – an advocate for immigrants and co-sponsor of early versions of the DREAM Act – said in November that he does not expect Congressional action on immigration until after the 2012 election.

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