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Analysis

Far from the Mexican border, 2016 GOP presidential candidates keep immigration at forefront

New Hampshire is 94% white and about as far as possible from the nation’s southern border. Nonetheless, illegal immigration has emerged as a virulent issue in this state’s presidential primary.

Donald Trump is savaging Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on the state’s airwaves, contending Cruz favors legal status for those in the country without proper papers. An independent group backing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is running ads accusing Cruz of flip-flopping on the subject. Cruz and Rubio both cast their immigration plans as uncompromising while dancing around the question of how they would handle the nearly 11 million people in the country illegally.

The involvement of the Republican Party’s top three candidates is driven by Trump’s vehemence, Cruz and Rubio’s actions as U.S. senators, and the concern of a small but persistent percentage of the state’s voters.

But in this contest, the issue of immigration is also a means of demonstrating generalized toughness at a time when GOP voters, many of them fearful of terrorism, economic uncertainty and cultural shifts, are demanding a forceful presence at the top of the ticket.

A pledge by Republican leaders that this campaign would be sensitive to the concerns of Latinos and other immigrants has been thoroughly cast aside in favor of claims that are often exaggerated by candidates. On Wednesday, Cruz used the exact language in talking about those immigrants as California’s then-Gov. Pete Wilson used in a famously controversial ad during his 1994 reelection campaign.

"They just keep coming," Cruz said during a campaign appearance in Henniker, N.H., when a voter pressed him on what he would do as president. "Until you secure the border, none of the rest of it matters."

Wilson’s ad, using "they keep coming" as a slogan over black-and-white pictures of people running across the U.S.-Mexican border, is often cited as a key moment in mobilizing Latino voters against the Republicans, helping to turn the nation’s largest state into a Democratic stronghold.

It aired at a time when illegal entries to the United States were surging. Today, the number of people in the country illegally has been on a steady decline for several years.

Immigration has marked the New Hampshire campaign before, often in troubled economic times. In the midst of a devastating housing crisis in 1992, Republican Pat Buchanan scorched immigrants who he said didn’t want to become "Americans" but wanted "to get the benefits of the welfare state."

Buchanan, however, was just one candidate. Today, the issue has captured all the major contenders. Like so much in this campaign, that has been driven by Trump, who has cast immigrants in the country illegally as rapists and murderers.

The brutal ad that Trump has aired repeatedly in New Hampshire against Cruz uses the senator’s own words to condemn him. Taken from an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, it shows Cruz stumbling as he tries to explain how an amendment he authored that would have allowed legal status for some illegal immigrants was not, in fact, meant to accomplish that.

Cruz’s stops and starts are overlaid with sarcastic ripostes: "What is he talking about?" and "Yeah, right Ted."

A CNN/WMUR poll taken last month showed that Trump’s ad had an audience: 11% of likely Republican primary voters considered illegal immigration the most important issue in deciding their candidate in the Feb. 9 primary. Terrorism was first at 34%, followed by jobs and the economy at 26%.

As they have nationally, the candidates have worked to switch the immigration conversation away from the tricky question of what should happen to those in the country illegally, making it instead largely about terrorism.

During a speech Tuesday night in Exeter, Rubio raised the subject and said that as the son of Cuban immigrants he understood the issue "deeply and personally in all its complexity." But he immediately cast it in the context of the foreign threat, not the domestic dilemma.

"I know that first and foremost that immigration and the debate about it now has to be about keeping ISIS out of America," he said. "We have to do things differently now because we face a threat that wasn't here before," he added, as if to explain why he has backed away from his co-authorship in 2013 of a Senate immigration compromise that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of people currently in the country illegally.

As president, he would secure the nation's borders, Rubio pledged. "When I'm president, if we don't know who you are and we don't know why you are coming, you are not getting in to the United States," he said.

Rubio added that he would deport "criminal aliens ... right away." He made no mention of what to do with the millions of immigrants already here without legal status, other than to say that after constructing a wall and tightening immigration procedures, "After that, we’ll deal with the rest of it -- not amnesty."

Cruz and Rubio have fought relentlessly over their positions, with Cruz accusing Rubio of favoring legalization and Rubio pointing to Cruz’s amendment -- the one in Trump’s commercial -- as proof he has changed his tune. But the two sound remarkably similar as they campaign here.

During an event in Henniker on Wednesday, Cruz called for the same extension of the border wall, tightened restrictions on visa holders and job-seekers and eradication of sanctuary cities that Rubio had cited the night before. Cruz, also the son of a Cuban immigrant, used military terms to vow that he would multiply border assets so that "if there’s an attempted incursion, you direct the boots on the ground to intercept."

He insisted that "outside of Washington" there was a national consensus to secure the border and to end illegal immigration, and "that’s how we solve immigration."

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He also asserted, as Buchanan did a generation ago, that such immigrants were profiting from their status.

"Beyond that, we will cut off welfare for those here illegally," he said. Most welfare programs require proof of legal status.

Even after being pressed by a voter, Cruz did not detail the fate of most of those already in the country, other than to say that "every criminal illegal alien will be deported."

Yet the questioner said Cruz’s answer had caused him to definitively side with the Texas senator. The voter, David Stotler, a teacher, said he had been considering former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who supports giving legal status to immigrants without papers, until he read up on Bush’s positions.

He is sympathetic to immigrants, Stotler said, but has endured years of fighting for citizenship for his Korean-born wife.

"Rules are rules," he said. "Laws are laws."

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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