When Did the GOP Get So Extreme on Immigration?

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Obama Speaks At Naturalization Ceremony
Support for deporting undocumented immigrants instead of offering them a path to citizenship is on the rise among GOP voters.Photo: Martin H. Simon/2015 Getty Images

An exchange between senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz on immigration policy during the December 15 CNN Republican presidential candidates’ debate is drawing sustained attention from journalists and spin doctors alike. Rubio, for roughly the 5,000th time, had to defend (and, to a considerable extent, recant) his leading role in the Senate-passed “Gang of Eight” bipartisan comprehensive immigration-reform bill, which has been an albatross for him in securing the trust of conservative activists in Iowa and elsewhere. Cruz drew hostile scrutiny for taking a hard-line position opposing not just a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants but any path to legalization. That kept him in step with Donald Trump, but was arguably at odds with positions he took in the past.  

What has not been fully appreciated is that Cruz, like Rubio, has been wrong-footed by the steady trend toward intolerance of immigrants that has gripped the activist base of the GOP, arguably going back to 2007, when conservative backlash thwarted the efforts of George W. Bush and John McCain to work with Ted Kennedy and other Democrats on a comprehensive reform bill. Since then, McCain was forced to “get tough” on border enforcement during his 2008 presidential election and 2010 Senate reelection campaigns. 

Rick Perry famously misjudged GOP opinion in 2011, when he accused opponents of benefits for DREAMers of heartlessness. Jeb Bush carefully constructed a new immigration position in 2013, publishing an entire book that seemed to abandon his previous support for a broad-based path to citizenship in favor of a large guest-worker program. But by the time he started running for president, he, too, was being described as a pro-amnesty “squish.” The party as a whole, in the RNC’s post-2012 “autopsy” report, flatly argued the GOP needed to support something significantly more generous than Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” (i.e., making life so miserable for unauthorized immigrants that they leave) position in order to do better among the rapidly growing Latino portion of the electorate. But as polls have shown, support for an active policy of deportation by law enforcement has steadily gained ground, becoming a clear majority position among self-identified Republicans by mid-2014 (pushed along by publicity over a wave of children entering the country from Central America, and by false but lurid reports of ISIS terrorists plotting to cross the Rio Grande).

By late November of this year, a Fox News survey found 60 percent of Republicans considered “identifying and deporting millions of immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally” a “smart idea,” even though majorities were also open to some form of legalization for those who already had jobs. The key thing to realize is that a hard-core pro-deportation position is now a mainstream Republican position, and certainly more popular than “amnesty.” That helps explain why Ted Cruz, who is by most accounts trying to “draft” support from Trump in order to pick up his fans if and when the tycoon ever fades, now wants to eliminate any doubts that he’s ready if necessary to call in the cattle cars and set up the transit camps. “Self-deportation” now looks mild by contrast. 

If you wonder how Republican presidential candidates have so quickly forgotten the lessons of the “autopsy report” and are risking a general-election victory by alienating Latino voters, keep in mind that Cruz and many other conservatives have never bought the idea that Latinos are essential to victory. Cruz himself alternatively points to “54 million evangelicals” who allegedly “stayed home” in 2012, and to white working-class “Reagan Democrats” as the keys to a majority coalition in 2016. 

In any event, Mitt Romney, who at one point in 2012 was counting on Marco Rubio to draft a DREAM Act substitute he could endorse to lessen the sting of his “self-deportation” talk (it was cleverly preempted by President Obama’s executive action dealing with DREAMers — you know, the one Republicans are now avid to repeal), would probably be uncomfortable with how far right the GOP has drifted on immigration. But after GOP presidential candidates like both Rubio and Cruz have worked so hard to dig themselves into new, nativist-friendly positions, it’s hard to see them coming up with anything less toxic for a general-election audience.