GOP's surprising immigration convergence: How the party's "amnesty!" fever broke

What intra-party battle? The major GOP candidates are all basically on the same page now

By Jim Newell
Published April 8, 2015 3:11PM (EDT)
Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush                              (Reuters/AP/Sara Stathas/Kevin Lamarque/Stephan Savoia/David Manning)
Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush (Reuters/AP/Sara Stathas/Kevin Lamarque/Stephan Savoia/David Manning)

No one's presidential campaign announcement speech should be expected to touch on every single issue. But it should touch on all of the most important issues. And in his announcement speech yesterday, Rand Paul didn't mention what's arguably been the most prominent issue of the past two years: immigration.

From the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed in 2013 through its eventual death in the House, from the 2014 GOP primary season through last summer's border crisis, from President Obama's executive actions on immigration through the DHS funding fight that wrapped up a month ago, no domestic issue has sucked up more oxygen since the last presidential election than immigration. As we head into the 2016 election, it's time to wonder: has the immigration issue flamed out?

Rand Paul has always been difficult to nail down on the issue. (This is largely because Rand Paul is difficult to nail down on any issue, though he gets quite huffy if you point this out to him.) In 2013 he tried to play it both ways, suggesting he supported comprehensive immigration reform without ever voting for a comprehensive immigration reform plan.

Now that we're in a 2016 cycle, Paul is back to where he started. He didn't mention immigration yesterday,  but he's previously said that he supports a plan to secure the border, first, and then eventually grant legal status -- not citizenship -- to undocumented immigrants:

"I’ve always been of the opinion that we should do things the proper way," Paul said. "I am in favor of doing immigration reform, but it should be done in the proper fashion." He cited the the need to tighten border security before attempting anything else, but added that "the 11 million, I think, are never going home, don’t need to be sent home, and I would incorporate them into our society by giving them work visas and making them taxpayers."

The "secure the border first and then offer legal status" plan may sound familiar: it's basically where every GOP candidate with even a modest shot at the nomination is.

It took some serious spycraft to pin down Scott Walker, too, but "SECURE THE BORDER! (and then, I dunno, maybe hand out some work permits??)" is where most intelligence analysts would put Walker on the immigration spectrum.

Jeb Bush is reputed to be the business-side Republican who's personally shepherding hundreds of undocumented immigrants across the southern border everyday and immediately handing them citizenship documents. But he, too, thinks immigration reform legislation should first secure the border and then offer undocumented immigrants a "path to legal status."

What about Ted Cruz? His role in the primaries, after all, is to enforce right-wing orthodoxy within the field on every issue. But even he hasn't ruled out a path to legal status. Ted Cruz!

You could make the argument that the major candidate who is currently the most right-wing on immigration, at least on paper, is Marco Rubio. Yes, the same Marco Rubio who co-authored, and eventually renounced, the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill that offered a path to citizenship. Rubio was stung so badly for trying to achieve a bipartisan solution to one of the country's biggest, most lingering problems that he's not going anywhere near offering an opinion on how to "deal" with the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. He'll just say "secure the border" and leave it at that.

Not so long ago, immigration was considered the most divisive issue within the Republican party, pitting Chamber of Commerce-type Republicans at odds with the Tea Party, conservative movement base. But right now, it may be the area where presidential candidates are most in agreement: Secure the border and then we'll talk about legal status. Undo President Obama's actions on immigration for overstepping executive boundaries. And certainly never, ever call this "amnesty." A path to "legal status" would certainly have counted as "amnesty" under the GOP's midterm-cycle definition, when "amnesty" meant anything short of maximal deportation policy. Now that it's a presidential election, the party has an electoral interest in not going completely out of its way to scare away Hispanic and Asian Americans. "Amnesty" will be conveniently redefined to mean citizenship, not legal status. Some opportunist like, oh, say, Bobby Jindal will probably try to push the candidates from the right on this, but no one cares about Bobby Jindal.

Immigration was expected to be a make-or-break topic for candidates, but for now, it's been de-weaponized as a wedge issue. This is a fantastic turn of events for Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the two candidates with the most heretical biographies on immigration. Everyone's more or less on the same page now. It's playing out to be a wash.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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