WASHINGTON — Ask the leading Republican presidential candidates about dealing with illegal immigration, and inevitably the answer focuses on tightening border security and building fences.
What voters are not hearing a lot about is giving legal status, under certain conditions, to illegal immigrants in the United States, even though each of the top three GOP candidates has supported such a policy.
The reason has a lot to do with a deep fissure in the GOP base: Business and industry are demanding more low-wage workers, while grass-roots conservatives are demanding that those workers be shipped home.
Some candidates face angry questions
From coffee shops in Iowa to barbecue joints in South Carolina, GOP voters troubled by what they see as an unchecked influx of immigrants into their communities are peppering the candidates with often-angry questions at campaign stops.
"The country's being invaded by people that really shouldn't be here, that are coming here illegally," said Ron Dupuis, who confronted Sen. John McCain at a New Hampshire forum last year. "They're impacting our health care system. They're impacting our education system, and that is my main concern."
However, instead of talking about pathways to citizenship, the candidates are emphasizing border security. In a USA Today/Gallup Poll last month, 29 percent of Republicans said all illegal immigrants should be sent back home, compared to 18 percent of Democrats who felt that way.
In Iowa, which begins the presidential nominating season, thousands of meatpacking industry jobs have helped to more than double the number of immigrants since 1990. The story is much the same in other early-contest states. The number has tripled in South Carolina and nearly doubled in New Hampshire.
Republicans "have a very visceral reaction to people who they feel are beating the system," Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said.
A lesser-known candidate could vault to prominence just by running anti-immigration commercials in an early-contest state like Iowa, Fabrizio said, calling it a "sleeper issue."
That's the hope of Tom Tancredo, a Colorado congressman who launched a longshot campaign for the GOP nomination on Iowa talk radio earlier this month.
"My purpose is to flush everybody out on this," Tancredo said in an interview. "Either they weren't talking about it at all, or when they were, they pretended like they invented the idea of border security."
Tancredo said he sees an impact on other GOP candidates already.
"It's certainly been the case that the rhetoric is beginning to shift," he said. "I don't believe for a second that anybody's heart is shifting with it."
Among the signs of that impact is the importance candidates' are giving to border security:
- "The emphasis has to be on security; that becomes even more important than any time in the past, because there is terrorism now," former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said earlier this year in California.
- McCain said: "We need to secure our borders. That is our first priority."
- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told Fox News: "You've got to have a wall or fence or electronic surveillance. You have got to make sure we secure our border, that's first."
‘One thing people agree on’
Duncan Hunter — another longshot GOP candidate who, like Tancredo, has a get-tough record on immigration — got some of his loudest applause at a Republican county convention in South Carolina on Saturday when he talked about slow progress on building more fencing along the border with Mexico. If the work's not done when he is sworn in as president, the California congressman promised, "I will finish the border fence in six months."
As another candidate, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, explained: Border security is "one thing people agree on."
As angry as he is, Dupuis, a former New Hampshire state lawmaker, likes the new emphasis on border security.
"Look, you've got to close the borders first, absolutely. You have to first stop the problem from increasing," he said.
Republican candidates also are talking about tougher policies for handling the 11 million immigrants estimated to be living in the United States illegally. McCain said last month he would consider making them go home before they could apply for citizenship, a much stricter measure than he supported in the past.
McCain sponsored a bill in the Senate last year to grant citizenship to people who met conditions such as paying back taxes and speaking English with proficiency.
Instead, House members, then led by the GOP, passed a bill to build 700 miles of new fence along the border. The measure cleared the Senate and was signed into law by President Bush.
Will people change their minds?
Sam Brownback, a longshot candidate who supported McCain's bill, frames the problem of illegal immigration in religious terms, saying he views every person as beautiful, sacred and deserving of compassion, whether citizen or not.
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Yet, the Kansas senator said he understands why people in Iowa and elsewhere are upset about illegal immigration.
"A lot of people feel like there's a lack of assimilation happening," Brownback said. "We've been a big melting pot, and now the melting pot's not working — it's not melting, it's not mixing."
But he thinks he can change people's minds.
"At the big-picture level, a lot of people are very anti-illegal immigration, very strongly so," he said. "But then when it comes to somebody they know personally, it's like, 'Wait a minute, leave this guy alone, I know him, he's my neighbor, he's working hard trying to help his family out.'"
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