It’s tempting to conclude that the “summer of Trump,” the recent debate on birthright citizenship and the GOP’s calls to defund sanctuary cities are signs that the Republican Party continues to remain hostile towards immigrants — especially undocumented immigrants.
What has gone mostly unnoticed (or at least unreported) is that a majority of Republican presidential candidates — now eight in total — support earned legal status for some part of the undocumented population. Moreover, 66% of Republican voters now agree. That’s a ten percentage point increase in support since May. These developments suggest an under-the-radar evolution in the GOP attitude toward undocumented immigration.
But, thanks to Donald Trump, the continuing prevalence of anti-immigration rhetoric has obscured a substantive shift on the issue.
In 2012, Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich were the only GOP presidential hopefuls to back earned legal status for undocumented immigrants. Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, argued for self-deportation. Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, last election season’s flash-in-the-pan “outsiders,” advocated for electrified fences and double fencing, respectively, as viable options.
The RNC’s post-2012 election “autopsy” explained that Republicans “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform.” The RNC warned that “if we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” Many have heeded the message.
This new reality goes beyond Bush and Rubio, who have been running against the dominant GOP narrative on immigration for some time. Moderates, such as John Kasich and George Pataki, political outsiders, such as Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, as well as sitting senators, such as Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, have all endorsed sensible approaches to the treatment of undocumented immigrants.
Though the specifics differ from candidate to candidate, the basic idea is similar. Undocumented immigrants would come forward, undergo background checks and document their time in the U.S. They would then pay taxes, penalties, or participate in community service. They would then become eligible for legal status and, possibly, future citizenship.
The majority of GOP voters back immigration modernization as well. In 2015, both Pew and Wall Street Journal/NBC polls found that most Republicans support legal status. And the numbers continue to grow and this sentiment remains steady in battleground states for the presidency.
Finally, the Republican candidates currently in second, third and fourth — Carson, Rubio and Bush — support some path to legal status.
This is not to say that all members of the Republican Party and candidates for president are about to adopt comprehensive immigration reform as a platform. The moderation from some in the party has left a significant subset of Republican voters feeling neglected and irate. Donald Trump, spotting the opportunity, swooped in and launched his campaign with now-infamous xenophobic comments about Mexican criminal tendencies. He’s been on top of the polls ever since.
Therefore, the loudest candidate (Trump) and the loudest Republicans (the Tea-Partiers), are still dictating the GOP’s immigration dialogue. This has led more moderate candidates to hide their moderation, substituting it for the opportunity to appear “tough” on immigration.
Republicans are now trying to strike the balance between advocating for some level of legal status while appealing to conservative voters via talking points about border security. Some, like Ben Carson, choose to hedge their position by offering conditions that must be met before legal status would kick in.
But Bush and Kasich, the two leaders on the GOP side on comprehensive immigration reform, have not made legal status conditional to border security. And anti-immigrant groups like NumbersUSA consider Ben Carson’s support for earned legal status, regardless of his border-security conditions, as “abysmal.”
So what is the state of the GOP? It’s a mixed party, with diverse views on immigration ranging from radically restrictionist to supportive of a pathway to citizenship. The Republican establishment recognizes its need to modernize despite a grassroots base that remains heavily nativist.
But the increasing willingness of Republican presidential candidates and voters to embrace a route to legal status reflects the GOP’s consciousness of a shifting demographic landscape, and a need for change. There is still a long way to go, but the progress is there and becoming stronger by the month.
The post first appeared in the print edition of the Washington Examiner on November 5, 2015.