Where the Candidates Stand on Illegal Immigration As part of our series on issues leading up to what has become a national primary on Super Tuesday, Robert Siegel talks with Carrie Kahn about the presidential candidates' positions on immigration.
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Where the Candidates Stand on Illegal Immigration

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Where the Candidates Stand on Illegal Immigration

Where the Candidates Stand on Illegal Immigration

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, we've been examining some of the biggest issues in the presidential race and what the candidates say about them. We've heard about the economy and health care, and today, immigration. Twice in President Bush's second term, Washington has failed to reform immigration. There has been much argument over who stood where in those debates and over what to do next with an issue that isn't going away and that the next president will confront.

NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now to talk about the candidates' positions on the subject.

And Carrie, let's start with the Republicans where there are some differences over immigration, essentially, differences between John McCain and the field.

CARRIE KAHN: Right, that is the main difference. You know, McCain co-authored that failed immigration reform package last year that would have given, you know, many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the country a pathway to citizenship. And his Republican rivals just say, you know, his position puts him on par with the Democrats. And they always use the A word, amnesty, when they're talking about his stance, and he's really had to fight this. So now he says he's heard from the American people - border security is the most important thing, and that comes first.

And here he is in the Republican debate earlier this week defending that stance.

(Soundbite of CNN Republican presidential debate)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): We are all committed to carrying out the mandate of the American people, which is a national security issue, which is securing the borders. That was part of the original proposal, but the American people didn't trust or have confidence in us that we would do it. So we now know we have to secure the borders first, and that is what needs to be done. That's what I'll do as president of the United States.

SIEGEL: That's Senator John McCain on the CNN Republican presidential debate earlier this week.

Carrie, the rest of the field is against giving illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens. What do they say they want to do?

KAHN: Well, let's start first with Mitt Romney. He's proposed that all immigrants should get a tamper-proof employment verification card that will go with a database that you can check work authorization with. You know, he's really tried to project himself as the toughest in the field on illegal immigration. He took that stand back in Iowa when it was a hot-button issue at the time. He was the first to run ads about illegal immigration. You know, that's besides Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo who was in this race back then.

But, you know, let's listen to this ad that ran in those days back in Iowa that really does sum up Romney's position.

(Soundbite of Romney's political ad)

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): We all know Hillary Clinton and the Democrats have it wrong on illegal immigration. Our party should not make that mistake. As governor, I authorized the state police to enforce immigration laws. I opposed driver's licenses and instate tuition for illegal aliens. As president, I'll oppose amnesty, cut funding for sanctuary cities, and secure our borders.

KAHN: This ad really did set the tone for the tough anti-illegal immigrant discourse that we heard in Iowa and into New Hampshire. You know, Tancredo since dropped out but he has endorsed Romney.

SIEGEL: And in that Romney commercial, we heard a couple of phrases that are going to figure in the immigration debate, instate tuition, drivers' licenses.

Let's hear about former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who now enjoys the endorsement of the Minutemen, the group that ran civil patrols along the border. What does Huckabee say about immigration, Carrie?

KAHN: Well, first of all, that endorsement was surprising since Romney was the one who said he was the strongest on illegal immigrants. And Huckabee, when he was governor of Arkansas, he actually voted to give illegal immigrant students instate tuition in Arkansas colleges. He took a lot of heat early on in the campaign for that stance. You know, but of late, he's really toughened his stance. He says he would now give illegal immigrants 120 days to leave the country or face stiff penalties and to be barred for 10 years from reentering the country.

Here's Huckabee tussling with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" recently. And this is over his past softer statements about illegal immigrants in the country.

(Soundbite of talk show "Meet the Press with Tim Russert")

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): I think it would be very, very difficult to do construction and agriculture without them. That's why we need a policy that puts everyone in this country in a legal position. And Tim, let me go further. Let me explain why.

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Host, "Meet the Press with Tim Russert"): This is important because your plan says send them all home.

Mr. HUCKABEE: No, I did not send them home. They will go home within a 120-day window, and then they have the process of starting to return.

Mr. RUSSERT: But that's 15 million people. You're saying to do that would collapse the American economy, and now that's exactly what you're proposing.

Mr. HUCKABEE: No, I don't think it would collapse the American economy if people went back and did their process of becoming legal.

KAHN: You know, Robert, not to be outdone, Mitt Romney talks about giving illegal immigrants 90 days to leave the country voluntarily before penalties. This is the so-called attrition theory for getting rid of the illegal immigrants in the country, and you know, make life so difficult for them that they won't have to be rounded up, they'll just leave on their own. And even John McCain is talking about people leaving voluntarily because as president, he would make the laws tough for them.

SIEGEL: Let's take a look at the Democrats right now. And how would you describe the differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on immigration?

KAHN: Well, there aren't very many differences at all. Both of them are big supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. The only point that they do differ on is whether illegal immigrants should get driver's license. And you remember Hillary Clinton took some big hits during an earlier debate when she sort of stumbled over whether or not she did or did not grant drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. And this is the one point during last night's CNN Democratic debate where you saw a few sparks fly between the two. And that was on this issue of drivers' licenses.

Let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of CNN Democratic debate)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): We disagree on this. I do not think that it is either appropriate to give a driver's license to someone who is here undocumented, putting them, frankly, at risk because that is clear evidence that they are not here legally. And I believe it is a diversion from what should be the focus at creating a political coalition with the courage to stand up and change the immigration system.

KAHN: And here's Barack Obama's response.

(Soundbite of CNN Democratic debate)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): There is a public safety concern here, and that we're better off because I don't want a bunch of hit-and-run drivers because they're worried about being deported, and so they don't report an accident. That is a judgment call. But I do think it is important to recognize that this can be tough. And the question is who is going to tackle this problem and solve it?

SIEGEL: Carrie, you're talking to us from New Orleans, but you're usually based in southern California. Looking at a big California primary on Super Tuesday, you detect changes in what the campaigns are saying about immigration?

KAHN: Definitely, a lot of the candidates have softened up that anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric that we heard so early in the primaries. And especially in these states that are coming up in Super Tuesday, like California that has such a large immigrant and Latino voter populations, you know, almost every candidate has some outreach in Spanish. They have ads in Spanish. And we even hear Mitt Romney with his ads in Spanish. And that's thanks to his son, Craig, who really honed his language skills as a Mormon missionary in Chile.

SIEGEL: Okay. NPR's Carrie Kahn talking to us about immigration and what the presidential candidates say about it.

Thanks a lot, Carrie.

KAHN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: And you can find out about the candidates' positions on health care and the economy at our Web site, npr.org/elections. We'll hear about their stances on the war in Iraq on Monday.

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