Since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has been making serious moves toward running for president in 2016, he’s modified his rhetoric on immigration reform. In the past, Walker focused his arguments on fixing the nation’s broken immigration system and figuring out a way to properly incorporate the millions of immigrants living in the country illegally. Now, the Wisconsin governor’s comments are far more focused on his opposition to “amnesty” and the importance of border security.
As Walker has begun gearing up toward running for president in 2016, he’s been dogged by an interview he did in 2013 with The Wausau Daily Herald editorial board where he voiced support for a pathway to citizenship. Walker on Monday went on Fox News to say that he was misquoted by the Daily Herald and has always said “repeatedly I oppose amnesty.”
“I think we’re a nation of immigrants, but we’re also a nation of laws. We should have a legal way for people to come into this country either for work or for citizenship, just like we have for generations,” Walker told Fox News’ Bret Baier. “Part of that deal is we need to make sure we have a border that’s secure, not just for immigration reasons, but as I mentioned, for national security.”
He didn’t go into much more detail in the interview.
That comment sparked a blistering column from Daily Herald engagement editor Robert Mentzer who included the full immigration remarks of Walker’s interview with the editorial board. The headline read: “Yes, Gov. Walker supported path to citizenship.” The piece bolded parts of Walker’s interview where he said “you hear some people talk about border security and a wall and all that. To me, I don’t know that you need any of that if you had a better, saner way to let people into the country in the first place.”
Walker stressed in that interview that “not only do I think they need to fix things for people who are already here, find some way to deal with that (but also) there’s got to be a larger way to fix the system in first place.”
Mentzer noted that in that initial interview, when Walker was asked if he could picture “a world where, with the right penalties and waiting periods and meet the requirements, where those people could get citizenship?” Walker’s response began with “Yeah. I mean, I think it makes sense.”
Walker’s response in 2013 focused less on border security and opposition to amnesty and more on what to do about the millions of immigrants in the country illegally.
“It all is about the 11 million — and I don’t know how we get that exact number because people, if they’re not here legally, I don’t know exactly how you figure out when it’s 11 million, or 25 million or whatever it is, but we’ve heard enough about it that it’s a real issue,” Walker said at the time.
National Review and Politico have both reported in recent days that Walker signed resolutions in 2002 and 2006, respectively, in support of major immigration reform proposals. In 2002, National Review reported, as the Milwaukee County executive, Walker signed a resolution expressing support for “comprehensive immigration reform.” The resolution supported letting “undocumented working immigrants to obtain legal residency in the United States.”
In 2006, Walker signed another resolution urging Congress to pass the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, cosponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). That legislation was denounced by critics as “amnesty.” The final version of Walker’s resolution did support border security enhancements, as the McCain-Kennedy bill did. But it also suggested support for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally as well as allowing them to get “full labor rights.”
The various comments Walker has made over the years on immigration reflects in part changes in the national immigration debate, which has gone through several distinct phases in the last 15 years.
Kirsten Kukowski, the communications director for Walker’s 527 political committee, suggested to TPM on Thursday that President Barack Obama’s moves on immigration reform are what’s caused Walker’s shift in rhetoric.
“President Obama’s lack of leadership has completely changed how our immigration system now needs to be approached and Governor Walker has seen his fellow governors have to deal with the collateral damage of Obama’s decisions and lack of leadership,” Kukowski said in an email to TPM.
Walker believes, according to Kukowski, “First, Obama’s executive action should be repealed” and that “we need absolute security at our borders and then we can address fixing our legal immigration system and deal with those here illegally but amnesty is not the answer.”
The danger for Walker is that, as Slate recently warned, he could appear “soft” on immigration to conservative Republicans, who he’s taking pains to court. Thus, Walker wants more attention on the notoriously anti-immigration reform Rep. Steve King (R-IA) praising a speech Walker gave in Iowa.
Walker has also fine tuned his language in interviews on immigration. In early February he was pressed on immigration reform in an interview with ABC. He just said he wasn’t an “advocate of the plans that have been pushed here in Washington” and that “we need to enforce the laws in the United States, and we need to find a way for people to have a legitimate legal immigration system in this country, and that does not mean amnesty.”