WASHINGTON — Top Republican senators criticized GOP presidential hopeful Scott Walker on Tuesday for casting doubt on legal immigration policies and echoing calls by outspoken restrictionist Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for a discussion about whether immigrants harm wages for native-born American workers.
It’s hardly remarkable for a Republican to be unsympathetic to undocumented immigrants but it is rare for a top-tier presidential candidate to call into question legal immigration, which the party (and business community) broadly supports.
In a Monday interview with Glenn Beck, Walker said: “In terms of legal immigration, how we need to approach that going forward is saying — the next president and the next congress need to make decisions about a legal immigration system that’s based on, first and foremost, protecting American workers and American wages, because the more I’ve talked to folks, I’ve talked to Senator Sessions and others out there — but 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 be at the forefront of our discussion going forward.”
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee who has been working on immigration reform for nearly a decade, disputed the Wisconsin governor’s suggestion in a huddle with reporters on Capitol Hill.
“I think most statistics show that they fill part of the workforce that are much needed. We have, and I’m a living example of, the aging population. We need these people in the workforce legally,” he said.
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the longest-serving Republican of the chamber, flatly dismissed Walker’s insinuation as “poppycock” when asked in a huddle by msnbc’s Benjy Sarlin.
“I basically think that’s poppycock,” he told reporters. “We know that when we graduate PhDs and master’s degrees and engineers, we don’t have enough of any of those. … The fact is you can always point to some negatives, but the positives are that we need an awful lot more STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] people. … Frankly a lot of us are for legal immigration and for solving this problem.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) also disagreed with Walker.
“I’m a supporter of the H-1B program and I think that’s what he was referring to probably, because that’s been the issue,” he told TPM. “We want legal immigration. … As a party we’ve always embraced immigrants coming here legally, following the rules. And it’s enriched our country immeasurably. It’s who we are. It’s the fabric of our success.”
Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune (R-SD) said he didn’t hear exactly what Walker said. “But I will say this,” he said. “I think if you talk to businesses in this country, they need workers. We have a workforce issue in this country and I know in my home state of South Dakota where the unemployment rate is 2.3 percent, they can’t find workers. So having a robust legal immigration process helps us fill jobs that otherwise wouldn’t be getting filled.”
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Walker’s political arm, qualified his comments when asked about the criticisms, saying he believes U.S. wages as well as the economy must be factors in setting legal immigration policies.
“Governor Walker supports American workers’ wages and the U.S. economy and thinks both should be considered when crafting a policy for legal immigration,” Strong said in an email to TPM. “He strongly supports legal immigration, and like many Americans, believes that our economic situation should be considered instead of arbitrary caps on the amount of immigrants that can enter.”
Sessions, who has pushed to restrict the flow of legal immigration into the country, praised Walker’s remarks. “I thought it was a good statement that he made,” the Alabama senator told reporters, “which is saying, ‘I’m gonna ask the question, what is it going to do for wages and job prospects for my constituents and the American people as I analyze how to create a proper immigration flow into America.’ We’re not going to end it, we’re going to maintain immigration.”
McCain said he worries about the GOP looking anti-immigrant if its candidates are casting doubt on the virtues of legal immigration.
“I do,” he sighed. “I do. And I think that one of the biggest mistakes that Mitt Romney made in his campaign was his comment about ‘self-deport[ation].’ Look, the reality is we are losing the support of the Hispanic community. The reality is the fastest growing part of our population in America is the Hispanic community. We need to address the issue. And we need to do it in a constructive fashion, or we do not win the 2016 election. I can’t be more specific.”