Politics & Policy

Walker’s About-Face on Amnesty

(Aris Messinis/Getty Images)
He used to support it. Now he says he's against it.

As vague as Scott Walker has been in his past statements on immigration, he has repeatedly claimed that he opposes amnesty for undocumented immigrants. That may not always have been the case.

A 2002 resolution passed by the Milwaukee County government and signed by then–county executive Scott Walker expressed support for “comprehensive immigration reform.” As he has begun to lay the groundwork for a presidential bid, Walker has been deliberately ambiguous about his views on immigration, but the 2002 resolution, passed just weeks after Walker was elected county executive, called for allowing “undocumented working immigrants to obtain legal residency in the United States.”

In public appearances in recent months, the Wisconsin governor has steered clear of that position. He has walked a different tightrope, saying that he opposes amnesty but hinting that he supports some version of a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, provided that they pay penalties, complete a waiting period, and satisfy additional requirements.

“Governor Walker does not support amnesty,” the governor’s spokesman, Tom Evenson, tells National Review Online. Evenson says the 2002 resolution was “stripped of references to amnesty before passage” — the reference to amnesty comes in an introductory paragraph and the resolution was, in fact, a substitute resolution for an original that was more strongly pro-amnesty — and reinforces the governor’s view that illegal immigrants should face penalties before they are granted citizenship. The resolution, viewable here, did not mention or spell out such penalties, and expressed support for “comprehensive immigration reform” that would have provided “greater opportunity for undocumented working immigrants to obtain legal residency in the United States.” 

After nearly a decade in the statehouse, Walker became the executive of liberal-leaning Milwaukee County after winning a special election in April 2002. The county board had been working on the immigration-reform resolution for two years and it came before Walker in May 2002, shortly after he came to office. According to an official record of the proceedings, it explained the reasons for the board’s support, including the contributions of immigrants to the county’s economy, their vulnerability to exploitation, and the fact that Milwaukee had played host in 2001 to the National Council of La Raza convention, where the plight of illegal immigrants had been discussed. The resolution concluded in no uncertain terms:

BE IT RESOLVED, that the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors does hereby express its support for comprehensive immigration reform legislation that will provide greater opportunity for undocumented working immigrants to obtain legal residency in the United States and joins the AFL-CIO, the U.S. Catholic Conference, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and other leading business, religious and civic leaders and organizations as well as the City of Milwaukee in urging the U.S. Congress to adopt such legislation.

It passed overwhelmingly on May 23, 2002, and Walker approved it on June 19, according to county documents.#page#

Former county supervisor Dan Diliberti, who authored the resolution, says it was a symbolic statement of support for a policy of amnesty and comprehensive immigration reform. He recalls meeting with Walker to discuss the matter. “He was definitely for it,” Diliberti tells National Review Online in a phone interview.

The resolution came at a time when Washington was tackling a slew of immigration-related legislation. Spurred in part by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers were also looking to address concerns that had emerged from the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which some felt had been unduly harsh on illegal immigrants. A handful of other laws were passed at the time, including a border-security bill intended to tighten visa and passport security, but Congress did little to address the issue of undocumented immigrants.

Since a breakout speech in Iowa last month, the Wisconsin governor has enjoyed a boom in popularity within the crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls. He has also been making obvious moves toward declaring his candidacy, hiring additional aides and, this week, making a high-profile trip to London to burnish his foreign-policy credentials.

The Walker surge may be short-lived, however, if primary voters suspect that the man they perceive as a battle-tested conservative warrior, thanks to his victory over Wisconsin’s public-sector unions, is soft on immigration. It’s an issue that is sure to figure prominently in the upcoming primary, and recent polling data out of New Hampshire indicates how big an obstacle it threatens to be for some in the emerging Republican field. According to the latest Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm College survey, while former Florida governor Bush leads the Republican field with 16 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, a full 41 percent of Republican primary voters called his support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States a “deal killer” when it comes to securing their support.

Walker won’t be the first or the last presidential hopeful to have to reconcile his past with his present. He will have to do it nonetheless. 

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been modified since its original posting. 

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