Is Walker's Message Mixed on a Pathway to Citizenship?

Is Walker's Message Mixed on a Pathway to Citizenship?
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As Scott Walker prepared to visit the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday, his stance on immigration reform is creating difficulties for him -- and causing some whiplash for his unofficial presidential campaign. 

The Wisconsin governor has billed himself as a “bold” conservative who can attract support from establishment-oriented Republicans. But when it comes to immigration, a complicated and visceral issue that divides the party, Walker’s agility is being put to the test: He must convince the GOP’s right flank he’s not Jeb Bush when it comes to what conservatives like to call “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants while assuring his party that he’s not Mitt “Self-Deportation” Romney.  

But Walker’s handling of the issue is itself becoming an issue, and could give his competitors for the nomination some primary ammunition. 

On March 1, Walker said he now opposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants after having supported it in the past. “My view has changed,” he told Fox News’ Chris Wallace in an interview. Over the past several years, Walker has voiced support for a pathway, including endorsing a comprehensive immigration bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. 

But during a private dinner in New Hampshire two weeks later, Walker advocated for immigrants here illegally to eventually be eligible for citizenship, according to a Wall Street Journal report that cited sources in the room.  

According to the Journal, Walker said immigrants should be able to “eventually get their citizenship without being given preferential treatment.” The owner of the restaurant holding the reception, organized by state GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Horn, told the paper that Walker “said no to citizenship now, but later they could get it.”

Through a party spokesman, Horn declined RCP’s request to elaborate on the comments. According to the New York Times, Horn said Walker was advocating for a path to legal status, not citizenship, for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

During the same visit to New Hampshire, Walker reaffirmed the remarks he made to Wallace, telling reporters that his views had changed after listening to the people and to the governors of border states. “I think people want strong leaders and they want leaders who listen to the people,” he said

The two-term governor is a leading contender for the GOP nomination, and is campaigning as someone who can bridge the party’s divided lanes. In his likely presidential campaign, Walker is working to hard appeal to conservatives, who oppose eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants as “amnesty,” while also trying to win over establishment-oriented and business-minded Republicans who generally support a pathway as part of immigration reform. What Walker apparently said in private differs from what he said in public in New Hampshire and is an example of how he is trying to balance competing interests. 

Jeb Bush, Walker’s chief rival at this point, and Sen. Marco Rubio, another likely challenger, have advocated for immigration reform that includes an eventual pathway to citizenship. But more conservative contenders such as Ted Cruz oppose such a path and call border security the nation’s top priority in this regard. 

Walker’s campaign claimed the Journal report was “erroneous,” and urged reporters to contact Horn and Franklin, N.H., Mayor Ken Merrifield for their accounts of the governor’s remarks. A call placed to Merrifield was not returned. 

“Governor Walker has been very clear that he does not support amnesty and believes that border security must be established and the rule of law must be followed,” said Kirsten Kukowski, communications director for Walker’s PAC, Our American Revival. “His position has not changed, he does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants, and this story line is false.”

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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