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Where They Stand: Thanks to Trump, Illegal Immigration at Center of 2016 GOP Race

File photo by Allegra Boverman for NHPR
Donald Trump at the Republican Leadership Summit in Nashua, N.H. April, 2015

If you attend any Republican presidential campaign event these days, you are all but guaranteed to hear a voter ask this:

“What would you do about illegal immigration?”  

Florida Senator Marco Rubio was the recipient of this particular, and particularly polite version of the question, and Rubio was ready. As co-sponsor of the most recent stab at major immigration bill, a plan that never got out of congress, Rubio knows this issue is fraught. So fraught, he told the crowd that day in Salem, that talking about creating  a legal status for undocumented immigrants, before tackling border security, is impossible.

"Anyone who continuous to insists on doing it all at once is basically out of touch with reality."

The idea that a secure border must precede any major overhaul of US immigration policy has become standard among 2016 Republicans. Earlier this week, Jeb Bush, called it a “non-starter” to think otherwise.

Two years ago, Bush backed the failed senate bill Rubio sponsored that would have given some people here illegally a path to citizenship. Bush has favored the same for children brought here illegally, so-called "DREAMers."

On the trail these says, Bush talks up something a little different. Here’s Bush campaigning in Hudson last month.

"I don’t mean to sound like I’m saying anything controversial, but I honestly think we need fix, find a path find to legalized status, not citizenship, for illegal immigrants, the idea that were going to round 11 million people up, and send them back is just so it’s not real." 

Based on their answers given Monday at the Voters First Forum at St. Anselm College, other Republicans may agree with Bush, at least on the last point. When asked directly what to do about the millions now here illegally, some pivoted back to talk of the border.

"And until we get that border secure, it’s not going to stop. It’s like a serious wound you want to staunch the flow."

That was former Texas Governor Rick Perry. Others, like former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, went further than just calling for a tighter border.

"I’m the only person in this race who has called for not just securing the border, following up on the visas, imposing e-verify, but calling for a 25% reduction on the unskilled labor that’s coming into the country."

But not every Republican is out to look the toughest on immigration. Ohio Governor John Kasich agreed that a secure border was the first step, but he also stressed that undocumented immigrants deserve a chance to remain here.

"If they are law abiding, God-fearing folks they will have to pay a penalty, towards legalization, and they’ll have to wait…..and if they violate the law they're going to have to be deported or put into prison."

According to UNH pollster Andy Smith, right now, immigration ranks behind only the economy and national security as top concerns for likely GOP primary voters. The numbers of voters seeing immigration as the number one issue, Smith says, have nearly tripled in the last month.

"I think it’s the Donald Trump factor here, and what we see is of those people who see immigration as the most important issue to them, 38% say they are going to vote for Donald Trump."

Trump’s emphasis on the issue and the often inflammatory way he talks about it…

"You’ve got the drug guys, you’ve got the rapists, the killers, you’ve got a lot of really bad…"

...means immigration issues will be front and center during tonight’s GOP presidential debate. And whether his rivals like it or not, that’s where Trump will be, too.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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