Immigration issues are getting traction from voters in the GOP presidential primary, surprising some in Washington who thought the sagging economy would overshadow it and other topics.
GOP presidential hopefuls remain hesitant to talk about it.
“I think the candidates are beginning to wake up,” says Bob Dane, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), addinging that the most recent debates have elicited “more clarity” from the Republican candidates on the immigration issue.
Immigration seems to have sunk Texas Governor Rick Perry
’s chances in this race: his poll numbers took a dive after Perry defended his push in Texas to award in-state tuition to children of illegal aliens, calling anyone who disagreed with him heartless.
“It’s a problem for voters because there is legislation that the next president is going to have to deal with,” says Dane, referring to the DREAM Act, which would award permanent residency to illegal immigrants who came to this country as children and served at least two years in the military or completed two years of college.
Perry, it seems, was blindsided by the public’s passion for the issue -- which could be understood if too many of his advisers were relying on what Republicans tell pollsters are their top issues -- Immigration doesn’t usually make the list.
“If you ask people their top priorities, they’re going to say jobs, wages, the economy,” Roy Beck of NumbersUSA tells USA Today. “But what a lot of poll readers don’t understand is that immigration is intertwined with those economic issues for a lot of Americans. That’s why it keeps popping up.”
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has distinguished himself from the candidates with a specific solution for the problem of what to do about the 11-14 million illegal immigrants now here, advocating for those who’ve lived in this country 25 years or more to be allowed to stay.
But what to do about the illegal immigrants now living here is not the most important question to be asked of the candidates, according to Dane. The key question, he said, is: “Will you enforce the laws of the land if you become president?”
Dane says President Obama is now pushing a “back-door amnesty” through a series of memos issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that articulate broader and broader classes of citizens who should be deported.
The policy that has taken shape through these memos, most of them released just this year, has been that only those illegal immigrants who have committed felonies are being deported. All others, including those who have been turned over to ICE by law enforcement officers in Arizona under that state’s new law, are being released.
The issue will likely remain hot in 2012 as the Republican candidates compete for votes in early-primary states like South Carolina and Florida. Both states have seen big jumps in illegal immigration, and South Carolina followed Arizona and Alabama in passing an immigration law that will require police to check the immigration status of those they stop or detain whom they suspect of being illegal. The law is to go into effect on Jan. 1.
Gingrich, on a campaign stop in Greenville, S.C. on Thursday, told business and community leaders that on the day he’s inaugurated he’ll sign an executive order dropping the federal government’s lawsuits challenging the new immigration enforcement laws in South Carolina, Arizona and Alabama.
He also voiced support for a “birth tourism” bill to be introduced by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham that would make clear that children born in this country to parents who have come on a tourist visa are not to be considered natural-born citizens.
“That’s clearly not what the 14th Amendment implied,” said Gingrich. “And I think it’s inaccurate to interpret it that way.”
In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 27 percent of Republicans said they trusted Gingrich the most on immigration. Perry was second with 17 percent; Ron Paul had 13 percent and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had 8 percent.
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