Taking a Tough Stand on Illegal Immigration

Staking out a tough stance on illegal immigration and border security is practically the price of admission in many of the 2010 Republican primary races.

Even though some polls show that illegal immigration is not currently a top issue in the minds of voters—immigration ranks 18th out of 20 issues in a January 2010 Pew Research Center survey—the issue has never lost its resonance with many conservative Republicans, those most likely to vote in primary elections.

And interest in the issue has benefited from the surge of Tea Party activists now infiltrating the state and local Republican Party structures.

The result is a rash of GOP primary dogfights in which staunch border-security advocates showcase their credentials, while those with shakier records scramble to establish their bona fides.

One example lies in Florida’s Senate race. Former House Speaker Marco Rubio has been criticized for not doing more to push anti-illegal immigration bills during his years in the legislature, but he’s since toughened his position during his campaign for the GOP nomination.

“Rubio wasn’t real proactive [on illegal immigration]—he sat on stuff while he was speaker—but he never pushed against it,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Now he’s talking against it.”

Rubio has spoken out in favor of securing the border and e-verify for employers, while depicting Republican rival Gov. Charlie Crist as pro-amnesty. Rubio has also tried to cast foes of open borders in a more positive light.

“The Republican Party, I think unfortunately, has been cast as the anti-illegal immigration party,” said Rubio during his debate with Crist on “Fox News Sunday.” “It is not the anti-illegal immigration party. It is the pro-legal immigration party.”

For sheer prominence, however, no race can match the Arizona Republican Senate primary, where former Rep. J.D. Hayworth is challenging Sen. John McCain. Without the immigration issue, it’s unlikely that Hayworth would have entered the race at all. He’s blasting McCain as consistently weak on border security, culminating in the four-term incumbent’s sponsorship of the 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal aliens.

At Hayworth campaign headquarters in Phoenix, border-security advisor Chris Simcox says the illegal immigration issue isn’t a top issue–it’s the top issue. Emails, calls and letters calling for tighter border security outnumber all others. Simcox reasons that the McCain campaign is probably hearing the same thing.

“The man [McCain] must be getting continually beaten over the head over this at his office,” says Simcox, founder of an Arizona minuteman group who’s now advising Hayworth. “I know at our headquarters, border security is the number-one issue. People have had enough with the drug cartels taking over the border.”

While illegal immigration is a major concern in border states like Arizona, Simcox says many of those donating to the campaign live nowhere near Juarez or Tijuana.

“We’re hearing from people in New York, New Jersey, Maine, Alabama—I’m reading email after email saying, ‘Secure the border,'” said Simcox. “People are contributing solely because of the border-security issue.”

Clearly McCain has gotten the message. He’s moving to the right on the issue—he called for placing troops on the border after the death of Arizona rancher Rob Krentz, who was shot March 27 on his 35,000-acre ranch in what may be a cartel-related murder.

McCain maintains that he favors a pathway to citizenship, not amnesty. Hayworth, who has advocated bringing troops to the border for years, dismissed McCain’s position on troops as “yet another election year conversion.”

In California, Republican candidates are raising illegal immigration’s profile by linking it to the state’s disastrous economic condition. State officials estimate that services for illegal immigrants cost the state $4 to $5 billion annually.

All three Republicans–former Rep. Tom Campbell, state Rep. Chuck Devore and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina–are advocating tighter border security and rejecting amnesty, although only DeVore is calling for a border fence. As records go, Devore’s is the strongest: He headed a state legislative task force on illegal immigration and led the 2006 boycott of the Mexican President Vicente Fox’s address before the state legislature.

Then there’s the California gubernatorial primary, where Republican state Treasurer Steve Poizner and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman are duking it out for the title of immigration-hawk.

Then there’s the California gubernatorial primary, where Republican state Treasurer Steve Poizner and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman are duking it out for the title of immigration-hawk.

The Poizner campaign has so far aired two immigration-themed ads that connect the dots between illegal immigration and the state’s catastrophic budget woes. A spot released March 23 shows Poizner standing next to a car balanced on an embankment.

“We all know that California is headed right over a cliff,” says Poizner in the ad. “Take illegal immigration. Politicians have lacked the guts to tackle the problem. As governor, I will stop taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants. If necessary, I’ll bring it to you as a ballot initiative.”

Whitman swung back with an ad saying that “he talks tough, but Poizner actually praised George Bush’s plan to give illegal immigrants a path to amnesty.”

Poizner insists that Whitman is pro-amnesty, which she denies, but she’s clearly seen as the softer candidate on immigration. She said in an interview that she would have voted against Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative banning illegal immigrants from access to state social services, including healthcare and education. The measure passed with 59% of the vote but was later declared unconstitutional by a federal court.

At the same time, she brought on former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson as her campaign chair. Wilson is regarded as the face of Proposition 187—he supported it as governor—and his appointment to the Whitman campaign immediately drew cries of outrage from Hispanic activists. A Democratic group is now airing an ad demanding Wilson’s firing.

The move is expected to cut into any support Whitman might have had among Hispanic groups, which still regard Wilson as public-enemy No. 1. That she’s willing to risk the Hispanic vote to win over illegal-immigration foes may be the clearest indication yet of the issue’s power.