As the Republican presidential primary hopefuls gather in New Hampshire this week and continue to introduce themselves to voters in the months ahead, few issues will say more about a candidate’s ability to compete and win the general election in November 2016, as well as his or her willingness to lead and level with the American people, than how he or she addresses the issue of immigration reform. Specifically, what is each candidate’s policy solution that addresses the more than 11 million people living here without legal documentation?
There should be no question at this point that Governor Romney’s comment about “self-deportation” at a 2012 primary debate seriously harmed his standing with the fastest-growing sector of the American electorate. While he was successful in attacking GOP opponents like Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich on immigration during the primary, he lost the Hispanic vote in the general election by an even greater margin than in President Obama’s historic 2008 victory.
Yet more than three years later, the Republican Party still finds itself facing this same debate – and arguably, the stakes are even higher today than in 2012. As top GOP pollster Whit Ayres observed in the New York Times recently, unless the GOP’s next nominee is able to eclipse the 17% of the non-white vote that Governor Romney received, he or she will now need to win at least 65% of the white vote to win the general election.
Here is what we do know – almost without exception, every Republican presidential hopeful has made clear that we need to secure our borders, that we need to enforce the law, and that they oppose “amnesty.”
But while countless news articles have reported on any particular Republican stating his or her opposition to “amnesty,” virtually none of them have elaborated seriously on what that actually means, or how specifically that particular presidential hopeful would address the more than 11 million people currently living here without legal documentation.
What is notable, and what has arguably gone unnoticed in most reporting, is that no GOP presidential candidate has said that the government should arrest, process, and engage in the mass deportation of 11 million people. What that suggests is that they all know that is both a politically unpalatable position and an unrealistic policy position.
Which brings us back to the key question – what is “amnesty”? And how does that square with “enforcing the law”? After all, the law is quite clear: for those who came here illegally, the penalty is deportation for most cases. Yet again, not a single Republican candidate is calling for mass deportation.
One key reasons can be found in a new study released this month by former CBO Director and top conservative economist Doug Holtz-Eakin, whose American Action Forum estimated it would cost the federal government roughly $400 billion to $600 billion to apprehend, detain, legally process, and transport all 11 million undocumented immigrants back to their home countries. Further, the AAF study estimated that this would not only cost a massive amount of taxpayer dollars, but it would also greatly burden the economy. The labor force would shrink by 6.4%, and, as a result, in 20 years the U.S. GDP would be almost 6% lower than it would be without fully enforcing current law.
And as conservative columnist George Will correctly observed on ABC’s This Week back in 2011, deporting 11 million people “would require a line of buses bumper-to-bumper extending from San Diego to Alaska. That’s not going to happen. And as soon as people come to terms with that, then we get on to settling it.”
So the key question for Republican presidential hopefuls remains the same, and it will need to be answered in the months ahead – beyond taking long overdue steps to fully secure our borders, which all Republicans agree should be done, how specifically do they believe we should address the 11 million undocumented individuals currently living in the shadows within our borders? And if they support a policy of unilateral deportation, how specifically as President would they propose implementing that?
To their credit, Governor Jeb Bush, as well as Senators Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham, have all publicly acknowledged the reality that we are not going to round up and deport 11 million people, and, therefore, that the federal government should ultimately implement a path toward legalization. And it was Senator Paul who also smartly observed the dilemma facing the Republican Party when he reportedly said last year, “amnesty is a word that’s trapped us.”
Even Senator Cruz has not endorsed an explicit policy of mass arrests and deportation, and in fact confirmed last week that he is open to a path toward legalization.
Which brings us back to our original question: what exactly is “amnesty” if nearly all the Republican presidential candidates support a path to legalization? Those who address this issue head-on, who communicate honestly with the American people, and who demonstrate a willingness to lead will be among those best positioned to try to win back the White House for Republicans in 2016.