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Republican candidates remain firmly behind tough immigration laws

This news story was published on January 9, 2012.
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By James Rosen, McClatchy Newspapers –

WASHINGTON — When it comes to illegal immigration, Republican presidential candidates are talking like it’s 1999.

Listening to the GOP White House aspirants, voters might not know that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States is down, attempted border crossings are at a 40-year low and President Barack Obama has deported undocumented workers at twice the rate of his predecessor.

With slight variations, the top GOP candidates back mass deportations, tough state enforcement laws and extending the 675-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, where illegal crossings were near their highest back in 1999. The top Republican candidates also oppose giving most illegal immigrants a path to legal residency.

“Border crossings are at a historic low, deportations are at a historic high, yet every Republican presidential candidate says the first thing we have to do is secure the border,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington group that wants immigration enforcement to focus on serious criminals and national security threats.

The issue is likely to heat up in the next two weeks as the candidate campaign in South Carolina’s first-in-the-South Republican primary Jan. 21.

Illegal immigration has long been a hot-button topic in South Carolina, where U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint was lionized by Republican activists for his leading role in killing 2007 reform legislation he branded as amnesty.

Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh mocked U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., as “Senator Grahamnesty” for his efforts to pass the measure, and Graham has since adopted harder positions on illegal immigration.

Now, a federal judge has blocked a South Carolina immigration-enforcement law that was to have taken effect Jan. 1.

Sharry, other pro-immigration advocates and Hispanic lawmakers criticized former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney last week for saying that as president, he would veto the Dream Act, a bill that would provide legal residency to illegal immigrants who attend college or serve in the military, and who entered the country before they were 16.

Charlie Black, a North Carolina native and prominent Republican consultant who ran President Ronald Reagan’s winning 1980 campaign, now is advising Romney.

Black acknowledged that Romney’s hard-line immigration stance runs counter to Reagan, who granted the nation’s last broad amnesty, and to Black’s support for comprehensive reforms providing a path to legal residency.

“That’s the right thing to do, but I’m not running for president and Romney is,” Black told McClatchy. “He’s entitled to his own view, and I support him.”

While Romney used the immigration issue to skewer Texas Gov. Rick Perry in an early debate, other influential Republicans have warned about reversing the inroads that Reagan, President George W. Bush and 2008 GOP nominee John McCain made among Hispanics, the country’s fastest-growing demographic group with 21.7 million eligible voters — almost three times the number in 1988.

“The Republican Party has to discuss 1/8immigration3/8 in as humane a way as possible,” McCain told CNN last month. “We have to have empathy, we have to have concern and we have to have a plan.”

Former Bush adviser Karl Rove and former House Republican leader Dick Armey also have warned against alienating Hispanics.


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