Immigration has taken over the 2016 Republican presidential race. See, for instance, Donald Trump’s position paper that included a call to deport those in the country illegally and to challenge the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the one that says anyone born in the United States is an American citizen.
The nature of the debate threatens to undermine an effort by the Republican Party to reach out to Hispanic voters this election. It’s worth recalling though, that such heated rhetoric on the topic of securing the borders is nothing new in GOP presidential politics.
Back in 2007, Rep. Tom Tancredo pinned his entire candidacy on cracking down on illegal immigration. In one television ad, he made the connection between illegal immigrants and terrorists blowing up shopping malls.
“I’m Tom Tancredo and I approve this message because someone needs to say it,” the spot begins.
It then says that “illegal aliens” stealing U.S. jobs aren’t the only reason to worry about the immigration system. On the screen you see a shadowy person putting something suspicious into a backpack. Then, that pack is left next to a bench in a crowded mall. The announcer intones that “the price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to protect our borders from those who come to kill.”
An explosion is heard, and on screen words appear “Tancredo … before it’s too late.”
His candidacy went nowhere, but John McCain, who won the nomination in 2008, also picked up on the anti-immigration vibe that year among GOP primary voters, and felt compelled to emphatically back away from his earlier support for bipartisan immigration reform legislation in Congress.
It was again a very big topic for Republicans four years later. That year, businessman and presidential hopeful Herman Cain called for building a wall — nothing unusual there — but upped the ante by saying he’d add a moat filled with alligators on the U.S. side of the border.
And the eventual nominee Mitt Romney triggered controversy when, at a Republican primary debate, said “the answer is self-deportation,” explaining that “people decide they can do better by going home because they can’t find work here.” That phrase — self-deportation — would be used against Romney during the general election, and he won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
The GOP will need to do far better than that next year if it hopes to take back the White House.
The 2012 result prompted serious self-evaluation by the party. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a study — an autopsy, he once called it — and speaking to reporters the following year he noted: “By the year 2050 we’ll be a majority minority country. The RNC cannot and will not write off any demographic, community or region of this country.”
The party aggressively increased its outreach and presence in Hispanic communities, but those efforts are endangered by this year’s primary campaign.
First, there was Donald Trump’s declaration that Mexico sends rapists and criminals across the border. Then, this week, he released his first major policy paper — on the topic of immigration — calling to eliminate birthright citizenship
At his first town hall in New Hampshire a few days ago, he followed up by linking troubles in U.S. cities to illegal immigration.
“You look at Chicago, if you look at Baltimore, if you look at Ferguson, a lot of those gangs — and the most vicious — are illegals.” As to how he’d deal with them as President, Trump added, “They’re out of here, first day. I will send those guys, those guys are out of here!”
The crowd erupted in cheers.
In the days that followed, other Republicans sought to get attention on the issue, some echoing Trump’s rhetoric. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at first agreed with Trump on repealing birthright citizenship, but later in the week said he wasn’t for or against it.
Jeb Bush called Trumps language “vitriolic” and said he opposes changing the 14th Amendment, but on a syndicated radio show said “there ought to be greater enforcement … so you don’t have these anchor babies as they are described, coming into the country.”
Trump and Bush both use the term “anchor babies,” which is considered derogatory by many Hispanics.
Other candidates also have been making get-tough statements on illegal immigration. During a visit to the Arizona-Mexico border, Ben Carson told the local CBS TV affiliate that drone strikes are a possibility for dealing with the problem.
“You look at some of these caves and things that are out there,” he said. “One drone strike and boom. And they’re gone.”
Carson added, “I’m not saying that I would, but I’m saying we should use all the possibilities that we have.”
All of these comments trouble Daniel Garza of The Libre Initiative, a conservative Hispanic group that promotes free-market policies.
“At the end of the day, fundamentally, everybody asks themselves ‘will my life be better if I vote for this person or that person,’ ” Garza says. “And a person’s political narrative has a lot to do with that … and so, as Latinos, we are listening.”
For whichever candidate makes it through, the question may be how loudly the things they’ve said about immigration in the primary will echo in the general election.