It’s now old news that Donald Trump is leading much of the GOP presidential field into a conflation of immigration and terrorism as an integrated and urgent threat to America’s security and identity. The once-fanciful idea that ISIS is deploying hordes of agents as illegal immigrants and refugees flooding across our “porous” borders to turn America into one vast San Bernardino is now becoming an accepted “fact” in conservative discourse. And the would-be GOP presidents are mostly responding with less-bigoted variations on Trump’s proposal to bar entry to Muslims, not to mention his rhetoric of the U.S. as an embattled and thoroughly breached fortress where we should all look with fear and suspicion toward our dusky new neighbors.
No one is happier at this turn of events than Marco Rubio, whose long march back from a fatally miscalculated stand as a champion of comprehensive immigration reform — a.k.a. “amnesty” — has now culminated in the retroactive claim that the terrorist threat justified his abrupt about-face on the subject. It is clear, he said in last night’s Republican candidates’ debate, that all border crossings, legal or illegal, must now be given fresh scrutiny:
The issue is a dramatically different issue than it was 24 months ago. Twenty-four months ago, 36 months ago, you did not have a group of radical crazies named ISIS who were burning people in cages and recruiting people to enter our country legally. They have a sophisticated understanding of our legal immigration system and we now have an obligation to ensure that they are not able to use that system against us.
The entire system of legal immigration must now be reexamined for security first and foremost, with an eye on ISIS. Because they’re recruiting people to enter this country as engineers, posing as doctors, posing as refugees. We know this for a fact. They’ve contacted the trafficking networks in the Western Hemisphere to get people in through the southern border. And they got a killer in San Bernardino in posing as a fiance.
This issue now has to be about stopping ISIS entering the United States, and when I’m president we will.
As Ted Cruz quickly rejoined, the timing doesn’t quite work out well for Rubio to claim that some new threat of terrorist infiltration forced him to change his positions and his attitude:
[R]adical Islamic terrorism was not invented 24 months ago; 24 months ago, we had Al Qaida. We had Boko Haram. We had Hamas. We had Hezbollah. We had Iran putting operatives in South America and Central America. It’s the reason why I stood with Jeff Sessions and Steve King and led the fight to stop the Gang of Eight amnesty bill, because it was clear then, like it’s clear now, that border security is national security.
That’s more than a little disingenuous, too; it’s reasonably clear Cruz & Co. were more concerned about (to use King’s memorable phrase) those drug mules with "calves like cantaloupes" than anyone who might face Mecca to pray.
But beneath the jockeying for position here there is a party-wide drift far, far away from the debate Republicans were having just a few years ago on whether a “path to citizenship” or some guest worker program (or in the absence of either, “self-deportation”) is the right way to handle undocumented immigrants. Now legal immigration is in question, and for the candidate who desperately wants to blur all the old lines on the issue that nearly wrecked his national political career, that’s progress.