WASHINGTON: Donald Trump wants to expel undocumented US residents, Jeb Bush is for legalizing them. Immigration is dividing Republican White House hopefuls and embarrassing a party eager to appear strong — yet welcoming to Hispanic voters.
Since 2012, the issue has dogged the Republican Party, which is staunchly opposed to President Barack Obama’s executive orders shielding millions of immigrants from deportation.
The party’s conservative wing torpedoed an ambitious reform plan in Congress the following year, and the divide between moderate and conservative currents of the Grand Old Party has simmered on the back burner.
Until Tuesday, when the issue of immigration reared up in the fourth Republican primary debate.
On one side, billionaire Trump hammered home his plan to build a wall along the US border with Mexico — a pledge repeated like a slogan on the campaign trail.
“We need borders. We will have a wall,” he said.
Not everyone on stage was on board.
“Think about the families, think about the children,” said Ohio Governor John Kasich, who with former Florida governor Jeb Bush represent the opposing camp within the party.
“We all know you can’t pick them up and ship them across, back across the border. It’s a silly argument.”
“It would send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is,” added Bush, who backs allowing undocumented residents “to earn legal status” over time.
His positioning reflects his values and personal history — he is married to a woman from Mexico and speaks Spanish — but it has as much to do with electoral politics.
“They’re doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this” insistence on deporting millions, he warned.
“We have to win the presidency. And the way you win the presidency is to have practical plans.”
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas painted a different picture of the excitement within Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“The Democrats are laughing, because if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose,” said Cruz, a hero of the conservative Tea Party movement.
Cruz’s argument plays well in the primary race, in which core conservatives have an outsized role in the voting process.
He believes Republicans lost the 2012 election because their candidate, Mitt Romney, was too moderate, and that only an uncompromising conservative opposed to legalizing the undocumented can win in 2016.
Party leaders reached the opposite conclusion after the Republican defeat three years ago, when Romney’s assurance that the 11 million people living in the shadows could “self-deport” was widely ridiculed.
“We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too,” the party concluded in a self-critical post-mortem.
Obama won 80 percent of black, Hispanic and Asian votes, groups that combined will represent over half the population by 2050.
Hispanic-Americans often have relatives, friends or coworkers who are undocumented. Education and jobs may be top priorities for Latino voters, but they expect an immigration reform plan, or at least a more welcoming tone and less xenophobia than what Trump has to offer.
“The emergence of Trump as a candidate in this campaign has been a serious setback to the degree to which the conversation was evolving” in the party, Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute told Agence France-Presse.
“It has really introduced heavy anti-immigrant” sentiment, which had been more discreet in recent years, she said.
The Republican dilemma is exacerbated by what they say are illegal efforts by Obama to bypass the stalemate in Congress.
They successfully sued to block Obama’s latest immigration executive order in federal court, a decision which may yet be reviewed by the Supreme Court.
Clinton seeks to take Obama’s lead, and on Wednesday she declared Trump’s forced deportation plan “absurd, inhumane and un-American.”
Resolving the Republican tensions is a challenge in terms of both policy and rhetoric.
One of those walking the fine line is senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants.
He co-authored a comprehensive immigration reform bill but it died in Congress in 2013, and he later adopted a tougher tone, demanding dramatic tightening of border security.