Immigration has become a major topic in the Republican race and has placed the party in a quandary. In order to win the presidential election, their eventual nominee will need to attract Hispanic votes and a moderate stance on the issue of undocumented immigrants would help. But in order to win the nomination, they have to adopt the hardline stance that their primary voters seem to want. Any suggestion of giving the undocumented some legal status, even short of citizenship, has been denounced as an ‘amnesty’ and is seen as political poison. Marco Rubio tried to venture there and had to beat a hasty retreat from his earlier co-authorship of a plan to provide citizenship for at least some of them, because of the flak he received.
While all the candidates have expressed strong opinions in favor of using various means to tightly control the borders to prevent an influx of people from Mexico, they have tended to tip toe around what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. The immense logistical challenge of repatriating such a large number of people conjured up unsavory images of forcibly rounding up people, putting them in railroad cattle cars and shipping them out. Mitt Romney’s suggestion of ‘self deportation’ (i.e., making life so miserable for them that they would leave ‘voluntarily’) turned out to be a dud and has not been resurrected. As a result there seems to have been a tacit agreement that this was not a discussion any of them wanted and they have avoided it. Fox News avoided asking the question at the first debate.
But Donald Trump has now blown up that strategy. In his first policy paper, he has called for deporting them all while keeping immigrant families together, meaning that US citizen children of undocumented immigrants would be shipped out along with their parents. He has also said that he would deny automatic citizenship to children born in the US, a right guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the US constitution.
The catch for the other candidates is that they will now be asked where they stand with respect to Trump’s position and as we know, within the Republican party, the person who takes the most extreme right-wing stance on an issue tends to be the one who gains support. It will be interesting to see how they tap dance around it.