Four years ago, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that 43 percent of Americans said that immigrants in the United States illegally should be able to stay and apply for citizenship. While, depending on the exactly phrasing of the question, subsequent polling has yielded some divergent results, two recent polls have found that support pathway to citizenship now is up to 68 or even 81 percent. But despite this clear support, a ThinkProgress review of candidate campaign websites finds that, among Republican Senate candidates, more are putting their opposition to “amnesty” front-and-center now than back then in the last two cycles.
Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice, told ThinkProgress that “’amnesty’ became a dirty word in Republican circles under President George W. Bush in the 2000s.” Though Bush supported a comprehensive reform package that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, he said he opposed “amnesty” of the sort included in the 1986 reform signed by President Ronald Reagan.
Since that time, many opponents of immigration reform have used “amnesty” as a buzzword, aimed at making any path to citizenship sound like some sort of unfair reward for people who broke the law.
In 2010, President Barack Obama called on Democrats and Republicans to come together and pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. That year, at least fourteen Republican Senate hopefuls in competitive races noted on their campaign sites that they would not support efforts to create a path to citizenship — which they decried as “amnesty” — for the estimated 11 million-plus undocumented people living in the United States. Seven of those candidates won the GOP nominations and four were elected to the Senate (Sens. John Boozman of Arkansas, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania).
Two years later, immigration was a major point of contention between Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Obama took executive action to halt deportation of DREAM Act-eligible young adults brought to the United States as children and continued to advocate for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Romney proposed that undocumented immigrants should be pushed toward “self-deportation,” and vowed to oppose granting “amnesty to those who have come here illegally.”
But just nine GOP candidates in seriously contested Senate races used Romney’s rhetoric on their campaign websites. Three of those candidates, Ted Cruz of Texas, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, and Dean Heller of Nevada were elected with anti-”amnesty” positions on their issues pages, while the rest lost in the primary or general. Two more — Reps. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) and Connie Mack IV (R-FL) included similar rhetoric on their office Congressional websites but not their campaign pages (both lost in the general election).
Last year, the United States Senate passed an immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship, 68 to 32. Every Democrat and 14 Republicans voted for the bill, including Heller, who praised the bipartisan legislation as “a step in the right direction towards fixing an immigration system that is clearly broken.” Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has thus far refused to bring the Senate bill or similar legislation to a vote in the House of Representatives.
Despite the growing popular support, more than 25 Republican Senate hopefuls in competitive 2014 general elections or primaries are running against the reform bill, vowing not to support any legislation that includes “amnesty.” Three more prominent Senate candidates — Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, Louisiana Rep. Bill Cassidy, and West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito — have similar statements on their Congressional sites. Unsuccessful GOP New Jersey Senate nominee Steve Lonegan, who ran in the 2013 Senate special election, also noted in the issues section of his campaign site that he “opposes proposals to give amnesty and eventually citizenship to as many as eleven million illegal aliens.”
Sharry warned against reading too much into the rhetoric. “Some [Republicans who say they oppose ‘amnesty,’] are hard liners who oppose anything short of driving undocumented immigrants out of the country, and some are supporters of a broad overhaul that includes either an eventual path to citizenship or a path to legal status.”
But the fact that so many candidates are using the term “amnesty” at all is a sign that these GOP candidates are playing more to the right-wing base than the broader public, according to Center for American Progress director of immigration policy Marshall Fitz. He told ThinkProgress that “the GOP primary season has created an even stronger rightward lurch than usual these last several cycles.” Anti-reform posturing, he believes “continues to be red meat for them,” despite the strong public support for a comprehensive reform bill. Fitz added that the candidates’ pandering to that base is “obviously shortsighted and it is also unnecessary,” as a recent poll showed supporting reform would not depress GOP turnout.
2010 Senate candidates against amnesty (14)Alaska: GOP nominee Joe MillerArizona: GOP challenger J.D. HayworthArkansas: Elected Senator John BoozmanColorado: GOP candidate Jane NortonConnecticut: GOP nominee Linda McMahonIndiana: GOP candidates Marlin Stutzman and John HostettlerKentucky: Elected Senator Rand Paul and GOP candidate Trey GraysonMassachusetts (January special election): Elected Senator Scott BrownNevada: GOP candidates Sue Lowden and Danny TarkanianPennsylvania: Elected Senator Pat ToomeyWashington: GOP nominee Dino Rossi2012 Senate candidates against amnesty (10)Indiana: GOP nominee Richard MourdockMassachusetts: GOP nominee Scott BrownMissouri: GOP candidates John Brunner and Sarah SteelmanNebraska: Elected Senator Deb Fischer and GOP candidate Jon BruningNevada: Elected Senator Dean HellerNorth Dakota: GOP nominee Rick BergTexas: Elected Senator Ted CruzWisconsin: GOP candidate Mark Neumann2014 Senate candidates against amnesty (30)Alaska: GOP candidates Mead Treadwell and Joe MillerArkansas: GOP candidate Tom CottonGeorgia: GOP candidates Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey, Karen Handel, and Jack KingstonIowa: GOP candidates Sam Clovis and Matt WhitakerKansas: Senator Mitch McConnell and GOP challenger Matt BevinLouisiana: GOP candidates Paul Hollis and Rob ManessMississippi: Senator Thad Cochran and GOP challenger Chris McDanielNebraska: GOP candidate Shane OsbornNew Hampshire: GOP candidate Bob SmithNorth Carolina: GOP candidates Greg Brannon, Mark Harris, and Thom TillisOklahoma (November special election): GOP candidates Randy Brogdon, James Lankford and TW ShannonSouth Carolina: GOP challengers Lee Bright, Richard Cash, and Nancy MaceSouth Dakota: GOP candidates Stace Nelson and Larry RhodenTennessee: GOP challenger Joe CarrTexas: Unsuccessful GOP challenger Steve Stockman