Politics & Policy

Walker Adopts Sessions’s Hard Line on Immigration, Dividing Himself from the Rest of the Field

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the all-but-declared Republican presidential candidate currently leading the polls in Iowa, sounds more like Alabama senator Jeff Sessions when he discusses immigration issues these days.

“The next president and the next Congress need to make decisions about a legal-immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages,” Walker told Glenn Beck on April 20. “It is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today, is what is this doing for American workers looking for jobs, what is this doing to wages, and we need to have that to be at the forefront of our discussion going forward,” he said, citing Sessions by name as someone with whom he’d discussed the issue.

Two weeks earlier, in a Washington Post op-ed, Sessions had declared, “Legal immigration is the primary source of low-wage immigration into the United States. In other words, as a matter of federal policy — which can be adjusted at any time — millions of low-wage foreign workers are legally made available to substitute for higher-paid Americans.”

As the 2016 Republican presidential primary takes shape, Walker’s echo of Sessions’s tougher stance sets up proposals to reduce the rate of legal immigration as a party-splitting flashpoint, pitting the Wisconsin governor against other contenders who have emphasized their family ties to legal immigrants — Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and, to a lesser extent, Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal.

As the 2016 Republican presidential primary takes shape, Walker’s echo of Sessions’s tougher stance sets up proposals to reduce the rate of legal immigration as a party-splitting flashpoint.

Walker and his nascent, not-yet-official campaign are quick to downplay Sessions’s influence on their newly emphasized focus, declaring that while Sessions is a valued voice on the issue, he’s just one of many people Walker has consulted on the subject.

“This is not me embracing any one particular lawmaker,” Walker told the Quad City Times during a trip to Iowa in late April. He added that he had visited border states, and met with employers in Wisconsin and across the country, as well as lawmakers, “Senator Sessions being one of many.”

“Governor Walker has talked with a large cross-section of business leaders, academics, immigration attorneys, think-tank leaders, and state and federal elected officials, including the head of the Senate immigration subcommittee, “ says AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Walker’s Our American Revival PAC.

“Senator Sessions is grateful for the chance to talk to him, and they had a good conversation, but we’re declining to characterize the conversation,” a Sessions staffer says.

No committee chair in the Senate draws a harder line on immigration, legal or illegal, than Sessions. For Walker, a future endorsement or even just praise from the senator would provide some useful political cover with conservatives, who may have doubts about his stance on immigration.

The issue of immigration has given Walker headaches early in the presidential cycle. In a March 1 interview with Chris Wallace, Walker conceded, “my view has changed. I’m flat-out saying it,” when discussing his 2013 support for a proposal to allow illegal immigrants to, “with the right penalties and waiting periods and meet the requirements . . . get citizenship.”

Now, by suggesting legal immigration should be reduced if it would reduce unemployment and increase wages, Walker is drawing a harder line than many of his likely rivals, completing a transition from one-time supporter of the Kennedy-McCain comprehensive immigration-reform plan to one of the only figures in the 2016 field willing to campaign on reducing legal immigration.

For a lot of Republican lawmakers, celebrating legal immigration is a way to defuse accusations that they’re xenophobic or broadly anti-immigrant. But Sessions and his allies point out that even if the country were to effectively eliminate illegal immigration, the country’s existing legal-immigration system would still offer significant challenges to the United States, in terms of wages, job opportunities, and the ability to culturally assimilate new immigrants.

Sessions and others who want to see legal immigration reduced observe that advocates for legal immigration rarely mention specific numbers. Most Americans vastly underestimate the number of legal immigrants who come to the United States, currently around 1 million per year. To Sessions and his allies, such a large figure should dispel any notion that the country is xenophobic or unwelcoming to new citizens.

A call by Walker, or other GOP candidates, to ratchet down the rate of legal immigration would offer a vivid clash with the positions of several of the other candidates.

A call by Walker, or other GOP candidates, to ratchet down the rate of legal immigration would offer a vivid clash with the positions of several of the other candidates. Jeb Bush, for example, has suggested immigrants could be the key to revitalizing America’s impoverished inner cities.

“It just seems to me that maybe if you open up our doors in a fair way and unleashed the spirit of peoples’ hard work, Detroit could become in really short order, one of the great American cities again,” Bush said in 2013. “Now it would look different, it wouldn’t be Polish. . . . But it would be just as powerful, just as exciting, just as dynamic. And that’s what immigration does and to be fearful of this, it just seems bizarre to me.”

And it’s easy to picture a showdown in the early debates between Walker and Rubio, with each young Republican leader contending the other supports a legal-immigration policy that is contrary to the nation’s best interests.

When asked whether the number of legal immigrants should be reduced at the National Review Ideas Summit, Rubio responded that, “The number should be based on what our economic realities are, what they demand, there’s no magic number. . . . If you’re the smartest person in your field, or one of the smartest and most capable, I want you to bring those skills to America. We’ve always benefited from that.”

Rubio went on, “We shouldn’t underestimate how many immigrants truly want to become Americans. If you go to a naturalization ceremony — I went to one about four or five years ago — it’s extraordinary. 1,500, 2,000 people at the Miami Beach Convention Center and I never saw so much patriotism in one room. These are people that were Americans by choice, who wanted to be Americans who are proud to be Americans. It was extraordinarily uplifting.”

Walker’s likely to respond to an uplifting portrait of new Americans with hard numbers on employment and wages.

“It’s real simple,” Walker said in a radio interview April 27. “When unemployment is high and labor-participation rates are low, you don’t have very much immigration because you don’t want to flood the market. If, over time, unemployment goes down because they’re working a job, not because they stopped looking for jobs, then you can change things.”

— Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review.


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