New York Times
By Alexander Burnes
February 12, 2016
The Republican presidential race has erupted in an incendiary new round of attacks over immigration, laying the groundwork in South Carolina for a monthslong fight that is likely to amplify hard-line talk about border security and migrants before a national audience.
With Donald J. Trump leading the way, the candidates have offered contentious proposals to build a wall on the Mexican border, block Muslims from entering the United States and turn away even 5-year-old refugees from Syria.
Party leaders had hoped some of the most provocative speech would have subsided by now as the race moved past Iowa, a state known for its fiercely hawkish immigration politics, and as more conventional candidates, like former Gov. Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, turned their attention toward the general election.
Instead, the battle lines over immigration have only deepened, as Mr. Trump has maintained his upper hand in the race and the primary campaign has moved into South Carolina and a series of Southern states that vote over the next month.
The theme of what conservatives call “amnesty” has divided the candidates into two groups: One, including Mr. Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, favors strict immigration policies that would never grant legal status to undocumented immigrants. The other, including Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush, who are both trailing in the polls, has endorsed a crackdown on illegal immigration without ruling out legal status for people in the country illegally at some distant point in the future.
Here in South Carolina, Mr. Cruz is airing a television ad attacking Mr. Rubio for his involvement in an attempted overhaul of the immigration system and branding him as having worked “with liberal Chuck Schumer to give illegals amnesty.” A “super PAC” supporting Mr. Cruz has sent campaign mail to voters here and in Nevada showing Mr. Rubio’s face alongside those of Mr. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and accusing Mr. Rubio of supporting “amnesty.”
Kellyanne Conway, a strategist for the pro-Cruz group, Keep the Promise, said support for legalizing undocumented immigrants was a “complete deal-breaker, an unpardonable sin, among the base.”
But Mr. Cruz, who won the Republican caucuses in Iowa in part on the strength of his immigration message, is also facing newly harsh criticism of his own record. A conservative advocacy group, the American Future Fund, is running commercials that say he “proposed mass legalization of illegal immigrants,” as part of a larger attack on Mr. Cruz’s national security credentials.
Mr. Trump, who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration and for a special “deportation force” to expel undocumented immigrants, released an ad criticizing Mr. Cruz as untrustworthy on the issue. Mr. Trump later pulled the ad, but on Friday put out a different one highlighting the endorsement of Jamiel Shaw Sr., a man whose son was killed in California by a person the commercial describes as an “illegal immigrant gang member who just got out of prison.”
Heading into the debate on Saturday in Greenville, Mr. Rubio, who once championed an immigration bill that would have allowed undocumented workers to obtain legal status, insistently accused Mr. Cruz of being insincere in his support for punitive immigration restrictions.
At a campaign stop Thursday in Myrtle Beach, Mr. Rubio twice tied Mr. Cruz to more lenient positions on immigration that are unpopular here. When immigration was up for debate in Washington, Mr. Rubio said, “Ted was a passionate spokesperson on behalf of legalizing people that are in this country illegally.”
Even Mr. Bush, who has taken a more empathetic view of illegal immigration — he has called it an “act of love” for people seeking economic opportunity — has circulated materials at campaign events that stress his stern approach to border security.
“The first priority must be to Secure the Border,” the leaflets say, with the final three words in bold type.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to Senator John McCain’s 2008 campaign, said immigration had become a symbolic litmus test on the right, locking the candidates into a protracted struggle, with potentially grave consequences for the fall campaign.
“It’s an authenticity fight — who’s the authentic conservative?” said Mr. Holtz-Eakin, who advocated a bipartisan immigration deal in 2013. “The difference is, immigration is a real issue, it’s a large issue, and you can’t escape that.”
Should Republicans enter the fall with a platform based on severe immigration restrictions, it would be the third consecutive presidential race in which the party has tacked to the right on the subject before facing an increasingly diverse national electorate, especially in swing states like Nevada, Florida and Virginia, where there are sizable Latino and Asian-American communities.
After the 2008 and 2012 elections, Republican leaders publicly called for the party to soften its platform on immigration. In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat by President Obama, a report commissioned by the Republican National Committee concluded that supporting immigration reform was essential to the party’s viability in national elections.
The gulf between the parties has opened even wider since then: As Republicans have taken a down-the-line conservative stance on immigration, Democrats have lurched still further to the left, and have criticized even the application of existing immigration laws.
In the Democratic debate on Thursday night, both Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont criticized Mr. Obama for deportation raids recently conducted by his administration.
But the stakes appear to be higher for the Republicans as they grapple with the perception that their party is hostile to immigrants and nonwhite voters.
Proponents of immigration reform have sought to raise the alarm about the trajectory of the Republican race. FWD.us, an organization that supports immigration reform, and is funded in part by the Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, cited private polling to warn late last fall that support for large-scale deportation would be “disastrous” in a general election.
“Any candidate who in the general supports mass deportation risks negatively impacting the brand of his or her party for generations to come,” the group said in a memo circulated to allies in both parties.
In South Carolina, support for bipartisan immigration reform has not always proved politically toxic. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who supports Mr. Bush, won re-election easily in 2014 after backing the same immigration compromise Mr. Rubio supported.
But voters here are plainly looking to the candidates for reassurance.
At a campaign stop Thursday in which Mr. Rubio criticized Mr. Cruz’s immigration views from the right, Judy Phillips of North Myrtle Beach said some of her concerns about Mr. Rubio’s record had been put to rest.
Ms. Phillips, who runs a small furniture business, said it had been important to hear Mr. Rubio’s plans from him directly, after the barrage of immigration-themed ads that she had seen attacking him.
“They keep running that ad about Schumer and him,” Ms. Phillips said. “I think that’s a damaging ad.”
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