Scott Walker's "amnesty" problem: How its meaning is suddenly... shifting

The Wisconsin governor's trying to shift GOP's understanding of "amnesty" away from its midterm meaning. Here's how

Published March 30, 2015 1:21PM (EDT)

Scott Walker                                    (Jeff Malet,
Scott Walker (Jeff Malet,

After experiencing what must have been several wrenching twists and turns in his heartfelt convictions regarding undocumented immigrants, the Scott Walker of March 2015 appears to have settled on a middle-ground: eventual legal status for undocumented immigrants after the border has been secured and everyone gets to the back of the line and blah blah blah, but not full citizenship.

At least this is the best we can reconcile the Rashomon of conflicting recollections about what exactly Walker said at a private dinner with New Hampshire Republicans this month. A slew of people at the March 13 dinner told the Wall Street Journal that Walker had said he supported an eventual pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. As Salon's Luke Brinker wrote, that's the same position taken in the dreaded Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill that all GOP presidential candidates must torch with napalm in a loyalty litmus test to the conservative cause.

After the Journal piece came out last Thursday, Walker's team issued a flat denial that Walker supported a path to citizenship. "We strongly dispute this account,” spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski said in a statement to reporters. "Governor Walker has been very clear that he does not support amnesty and believes that border security must be established and the rule of law must be followed. His position has not changed, he does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants, and this story is false."

On Friday, the New York Times got its hands on another recollection from an attendee, this one indicating that Walker had said eventual legal status, not citizenship -- as in, you can stay here but can't have full rights like voting and so forth. (Just oozing with humanity, no? That's another topic.)

Mr. Walker spoke for roughly three minutes about a process in which undocumented immigrants would be required to start the process anew and pay back taxes.

But Mr. Walker’s answer was apparently vague enough to prompt Ms. Horn to follow-up.

“To clarify, what you are saying is that you are advocating that the people who are already here, the 11-12 million people who are here illegally in our country, should have a path to legal status, not citizenship?” she asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Walker responded, according to Ms. Horn.

Another New Hampshire Republican who was there, Mark Vincent, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Committee, said he did not remember Mr. Walker ever using the word “citizenship” in his remarks.

“I remember him saying he supported a path to legal status,” said Mr. Vincent, who plans to remain neutral in the state’s 2016 Republican presidential primary.

This would square with Kukowski's carefully worded statement that Walker "does not support amnesty" and "does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants." He equates "amnesty" with "citizenship," not legal status. Meaning Scott Walker is right where notorious imm'gant-lubber Jeb Bush is, and where the eventual GOP presidential nominee will be next fall: supporting some kind of legal status on the horizon while warding off primary-season accusations of supporting "amnesty" by defining "amnesty" to mean "citizenship."

This is adorable.

There are two amnesties in GOP rhetoric: one for presidential election cycles, one for midterm cycles. In presidential cycles, when it doesn't help the GOP to go out of its way and terrify Hispanic voters, "amnesty" reverts to its narrower meaning: no citizenship, but sure, legal status! We won't hurt you! In midterm cycles, where the idea is just to get as many ragey old white people fired up and voting, "amnesty" means anything short of maximal deportation policy. In 2014, "amnesty" meant any policy that didn't seek to deport every possible "deportable," to use Rep. Steve King's term, in the country. President Obama's policy to defer certain deportations temporarily was "amnesty." Any sort of DREAM Act was "amnesty." Taking into custody, instead of immediately turning back at the border, any Central American children fleeing violence in their home countries was "amnesty."

Now, as an attempt to thread the needle between conservative primary voters and establishment donors, candidates like Walker and Bush and we'll-see-who-else will try to argue that offering "legal status" does not count as "amnesty." (Though what they'll really be trying to do is not talk about the issue at all.) We'll see how this sleight works with "the base," who may not be quite as pliable as their candidates would like them to be.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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