Likely GOP presidential candidate says he backs allowing undocumented immigrants becoming eligible for citizenship
By REID J. EPSTEIN
March 26, 2015 1:18 p.m. ET
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told a private dinner of New Hampshire Republicans this month that he backed the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country and to eventually become eligible for citizenship, a position at odds with his previous public statements on the matter.
Mr. Walker’s remarks, which were confirmed by three people present and haven’t been reported previously, vary from the call he has made in recent weeks for “no amnesty”—a phrase widely employed by people who believe immigrants who broke the law by entering the country without permission shouldn’t be awarded legal status or citizenship.
The changing positions by Mr. Walker, a likely candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, show the difficulty that some in the Republican Party face as they try to appeal both to the conservative GOP primary electorate—which largely opposes liberalizing immigration laws—and business leaders and general election voters who have been more supportive of granting legal status to undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Walker’s “no amnesty” position was itself a change from his prior decadelong support for a pathway to citizenship. He has explained in public that his recent shift to a more restrictive view came after consulting with border-state governors and hearing from people opposed to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
But during the March 13 New Hampshire dinner, organized by New Hampshire Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn at the Copper Door Restaurant in Bedford, Mr. Walker said undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be deported, and he mocked 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s suggestion that they would “self-deport,” according to people who were there.
Instead, they said, Mr. Walker said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to “eventually get their citizenship without being given preferential treatment” ahead of people already in line to obtain citizenship.
“He said no to citizenship now, but later they could get it,” said Bill Greiner, an owner of the Copper Door restaurant. Ken Merrifield, mayor of Franklin, N.H., who also attended, said Mr. Walker proposed that illegal immigrants should “get to the back of the line for citizenship” but not be deported.
Mr. Walker’s statements about citizenship were at odds with what he told reporters the next day in Concord, where he defended his position opposing a path to citizenship.
“This is one where we listened to the people all across the country, especially border governors who saw how this president messed that up,’’ he said. “And that’s an issue where I think where people want leaders who are willing to listen to people.“
A Walker spokeswoman, Kirsten Kukowski, on Thursday didn’t address the comments governor made at the March 13 dinner supporting a path to citizenship. “Gov. Walker has repeatedly said that President Obama’s unconstitutional executive action and the collateral damage it has had on his fellow governors has made it evident that border security must be the top priority before we can have a conversation about anything else,” she said. “He is opposed to amnesty. There must be consequences for violating our laws.”
Mr. Walker plans to tour the Mexican border on Friday with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has sued to stop President Barack Obama’s executive action aimed at reducing deportations of illegal immigrants.
For more than a decade before seriously entertaining a presidential campaign, Mr. Walker publicly favored a broad overhaul of immigration laws.
At a 2002 Mexican Independence Day event in Milwaukee, Wis., Mr. Walker, then the county executive, signed a resolution that praised the economic and civic contributions of undocumented immigrants and called for “a new program similar to the Federal amnesty program enacted by Congress in 1986.”
In 2006 Mr. Walker signed another county resolution backing the immigration proposal authored by Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) that would have granted legal status to many illegal immigrants.
“You hear some people talk about border security and a wall and all that,” he told the Wisconsin paper in a videotaped interview. “To me, I don’t know that you need any of that if you had a better, saner way to let people into the country in the first place.”
Mr. Walker has shifted his stances on other aspects of immigration law. In May 2010, after Arizona lawmakers passed tough restrictions on illegal immigrants, Mr. Walker told the Associated Press he had “serious concerns” about the law because it “impedes on the inherent right of the federal government to do its job and to protect our borders, and also because in America we don’t want our citizens getting pulled over because of how they look.”
Hours later Mr. Walker, then in a Republican primary for governor, reversed himself. “I too would sign the Arizona immigration bill,” he said, after conservatives inundated his Facebook page to criticize his first position.
On the 2016 campaign trail, Mr. Walker has sought to portray himself as an unabashed conservative. This year, he has signed right-to-work legislation, which is vigorously opposed by labor unions, and signaled support for a state ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In a 2014 campaign advertisement, Mr. Walker had said he backed abortion legislation that “leaves the final decision to a woman and her doctor.”
Among the front-runners for the 2016 Republican nomination, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is in favor of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Mr. Bush noted this month that Mr. Walker had “changed his position on immigration” to a more restrictive stance.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was a co-sponsor of the 2013 Senate immigration bill that, among other provisions, would have created a pathway to citizenship. He has since disavowed a comprehensive approach.
Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, in his campaign announcement speech Monday, bemoaned “the president’s unconstitutional executive amnesty” that shelters many illegal immigrants from deportation. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is to announce his campaign April 7, last June said “amnesty is a word that’s trapped us” and said he is “for immigration reform.” Mr. Paul voted against the 2013 Senate immigration bill.
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