2004 marked the end of an era in Republican politics. It was the last presidential campaign in which the GOP candidate, President George W. Bush, can be considered pro-immigration. Earlier in the year, he unveiled his comprehensive immigration reform package which called for legalizing millions and putting them on a pathway to citizenship and also reforming the legal immigration system to make it easier for low skilled and high skilled immigrants to come to the country.
In 2008 and 2012, John McCain and Mitt Romney abandoned comprehensive immigration reform and instead turned to an enforcement message. Secure the borders and deport the undocumented. But both were insistent that they supported legal immigration.
2012’s two Republican frontrunners – Donald Trump and Ted Cruz – have a broader anti-immigration message that goes well beyond enforcement. Trump, of course, has been getting the headlines for his message of mass deportations and building a border wall (that he’ll force Mexico to pay for). He also opposes birthright citizenship. And despite Trump’s coming from the business world, he’s taking restrictive positions on legal immigration as well, calling for tighter rules on non-immigrant visas and a complete pause on issuing green cards until the US unemployment rate drops sufficiently.
Ted Cruz has been taking tough immigration positions for quite some time, but until recently has had taken strongly pro-legal immigration positions, particularly when it comes to high skilled workers. Cruz has now completely reversed himself and has just released a document calling for dramatic new restrictions in the H-1B program and the end of Optional Practical Training for F-1 students, something that will likely decimate university graduate departments. He would also kill the green card lottery without re-allocating those green cards to other categories.
The Republican Party has been in turmoil this election cycle. You just have to watch the news to know that. But the fact that the leading candidates have completely abandoned the long-stated position that immigration is good, just not illegal immigration, is a true break with the past.
Is this a winning strategy? Perhaps it is for getting the Republican nomination. But it’s in sharp contrast to the Democrats and broader public opinion. There doesn’t seem a way to make this work unless public opinion changes sharply.