Chris Christie really, really does not want to talk about immigration. During a trip to Mexico City at the beginning of September, he told reporters that his position on immigration reform was a closely guarded secret that will be revealed only when he decides to become a candidate for president. “Until that time I have no role in the immigration debate, except for how it may affect the individual citizens of New Jersey, which I'll deal with as governor.” Speaking to Politico yesterday, Christie offered what he said was a “candid” take on why the issue does not merit his commentary. “Of course. It’s a very important national issue,” Christie said. “There’s no upside to me at this moment, to be candid, to discuss it. I’m not a candidate for president.”
It’s is a fun little game Christie is playing, portraying himself as just a humble governor of a humble state who can’t possibly be expected to comment on “a very important national issue.” This deference to provinciality only seems to apply to immigration though. Christie hasn’t been shy about criticizing President Obama’s handling of terrorism, or offering some swaggering commentary on Russia’s territorial ambitions, or attacking the Affordable Care Act, or weighing in on the government shutdown, or rendering judgment on the Israel-Palestine conflict, or – you get the point.
So why is Christie dodging immigration? Because he’s trying to claw his way back into presidential contention, and his positions on immigration are lethal to man who has to win over conservatives in the GOP.
Last week I wrote about how the growing buzz surrounding a third Mitt Romney candidacy foreshadows the coming conflict between establishment Republicans and conservatives over immigration. The potential 2016 candidates are already breaking into opposing camps: establishment creatures like Jeb Bush and Romney are generally supportive of immigration reform, while conservative insurgents like Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum beat the drums against “amnesty.”
Christie is very much on the GOP establishment’s side of this fight. His protestations that immigration reform is beyond his purview as governor notwithstanding, Christie has been outspoken on the issue in the past. Back in 2010, Christie endorsed a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants: “What I support is making sure that the federal government [plays] each and every one of its roles: Securing the border, enforcing immigration laws, and having an orderly process -- whatever that process is -- for people to gain citizenship.” In 2013, shortly after the Senate passed its comprehensive immigration reform bill, Christie called for “fairness” in the immigration system. “You need to provide people with confidence that the system’s going to be fair and that means everybody,” Christie said. “That doesn’t mean just American citizens, also those people who are here, the 11, 12 million you’re talking about. The fact is we have to be fair to them also.”
On the policy side, Christie has enacted reform measures in his state. In January he signed into law a state-level version of the DREAM Act that allows immigrants brought to the country as minors to pay in-state tuition rates for college. “You are an inspiration to us,” Christie said to the DREAMers. “You’re an inspiration to us because in you we see all that the future of our country can be.”
Then two very important things happened: Christie was engulfed by the Bridgegate scandal, tanking his presidential ambitions; and Republicans abandoned their short-lived, post-Romney enthusiasm for immigration reform and reverted to anti-“amnesty,” border-security-first posturing. As he tries to mount a comeback in this environment marked by anti-immigration reform sentiment within the GOP, he’s probably spending a lot of time thinking about Rick Perry.
Perry’s 2012 candidacy was doomed by his gaffes and general terribleness as a candidate, but the one issue that drove a huge wedge between him and the conservatives in the base was immigration. During the debates he came under attack from the other candidates because he’d signed a bill very similar to the one Christie signed allowing young undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates in Texas. “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought their through no fault of their own,” Perry said at the time, “I don’t think you have a heart.” Now that Perry’s looking at another presidential bid, he’s lurched hard to the right on immigration, sending troops to the border and warning that terrorists are going to sneak in through Mexico.
Perry has set the tone for how the immigration debate will play out for the GOP in 2016. Christie clearly got the message, so he’s keeping his mouth shut and trying to keep the nativist hordes at bay until he can rebuild his reputation a bit. So when Christie says “there’s no upside” to him commenting on immigration, that’s true – he’s just being really dishonest when he suggests that the issue is somehow beyond him.