In the 2008 presidential campaign, some Republican contenders called for millions of people living in the country illegally to return to their native lands before being able to seek legal status.
As the next presidential election nears, would-be GOP nominees are emphasizing sympathy for some illegal immigrants, in what is either a strategic feint or a reflection of changed political terrain.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich opened the door to more flexible treatment of illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for decades, obey the law and are married with children.
“We are going to want to find some way to deal with the people who are here, to distinguish between those who have no natural ties to the United States — and therefore you could deport them at minimum human cost — and those who in fact may have earned the right to become legal but not citizens,” he said in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Potential candidate Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, told voters in Windham, N.H., that the concept of a border fence “repulses” him but may be necessary, and that once the border is secure, “there’s got to be an alternative rather than sending people back,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
And when leading candidate Mitt Romney was asked about the matter twice in recent weeks, he omitted his 2008 call for every illegal immigrant to return to their home countries before getting in line to apply for legal residence.
“Ultimately, we have to secure the border and we have to insist on employers following the law,” he said Thursday in Chicago.
Immigration requires a deft political touch, particularly for candidates competing in Republican primaries and caucuses. Many of the party’s most active voters hold strict conservative views on immigration, yet the eventual nominee must then pivot to a general election audience with much more moderate views, particularly concerning long-term residents who are illegal. At the same time, the nation’s Latino population is burgeoning, particularly in Western states that may be vital to winning the White House, and the issue remains important to them and many other voters.
“It certainly looks like they are trying to cheat to the middle awfully early, and they may not be able to get away with it,” said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. “It’s going to be interesting to see whether they can hold on to that position once the party ranks find out about it.”
The candidates’ track records provide plenty of fodder for activists on all sides. As Utah governor, Huntsman signed legislation giving illegal immigrants “driving privilege cards,” similar to driver’s licenses, putting him to the left of Democrats such as California Gov. Jerry Brown.
On the other hand, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in August called for abolishing automatic citizenship for children born to those in the country illegally. (He also was quoted by the Tampa Tribune days ago as saying that “we need to be mindful” of longtime illegal immigrants and that he hopes to “craft a legal, enforceable but thoughtful immigration policy.”)
Romney’s views also have shifted dramatically — as Massachusetts governor, he described proposals for a pathway to citizenship as “reasonable” and said mass deportation was impractical. In the 2008 presidential campaign, he loudly reversed course on the former.
He has not broached the fate of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants this year, despite being asked about how he would tackle illegal immigration and the border. An aide said his plan would be based on “many of the same principles” as his previous proposal.
Besides the country’s changing demographics, the political environment has muted the need for GOP candidates — to this point at least — to talk tough on illegal immigration.
In the last presidential contest, voters were seething about illegal border crossings, and citizens groups such as the Minutemen were patrolling the border.
Sen. John McCain’s presence in the 2008 contest also made immigration a hot topic, since he had been the architect of Republican efforts for comprehensive immigration reform, a stance he repudiated during the campaign. But he still took a more moderate tack than Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. McCain called for 2 million illegal immigrants who he said had committed crimes “to be rounded up and deported,” leaving aside the question of other undocumented immigrants.
As the 2012 race has quickened, the economy and healthcare have overshadowed nearly every other issue. And the grass-roots voters animating the GOP race are members of the “tea party” movement, focused on federal spending, deficits and debt.
But that focus could shift as the candidates are pressed for specific policy prescriptions in early states. News events — such as the Supreme Court’s decision this week to uphold an Arizona statute that punishes businesses that hire illegal immigrants — could also drive the discussion, much as that state’s illegal immigrant crackdown did in 2010.
“Right now, they’re kind of operating out of their ivory towers and so they haven’t really done much of that retail politicking yet,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates stricter controls on legal and illegal immigration. “That’s one of the things that really kicked it off in 2007. A lot of them were just shocked to hear how often Iowa voters bring up immigration — they didn’t go there planning to talk about immigration.”
Some candidates have already gotten a taste of voter sentiment.
At a recent house party in Iowa, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was midway through his plan to secure the border — more double fencing, a tamper-proof verification system and other measures — when voter Lee Bowden from Independence cut him off.
“If we can’t enforce our borders, how is that any different from war? And if that’s the case, why don’t we just put enough drones instead of a fence right there at the border?” Bowden asked.
“Drones — you’re talking about bombing people,” Santorum answered after a breath of surprise.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Bowden answered. “They shoot us when they cross the border.”
As Santorum replied that U.S. forces should not be “bombing people on our own soil,” another man shouted out: “How do you get their attention?”
Times staff writer Maeve Reston and Chicago Tribune staff writer John Byrne contributed to this report.