Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney wants the U.S. to build a fence to keep out illegal immigrants. Herman Cain suggested constructing an electrified “Great Wall of China” along the Mexican border. And Rick Perry, who once called the fence idea “idiocy,” is accusing Romney of employing illegal workers.
The issue of how to combat illegal immigration has emerged as the clearest dividing line in a crowded Republican presidential field, even as the weak economy dominates surveys of voters’ concerns.
The fight became personal last night, when Perry accused Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, of hiding the presence of illegal immigrant workers on his property, during a nationally televised CNN debate in Las Vegas.
“The idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is, on its face, the height of hypocrisy,” said Perry, the governor of Texas. Romney fired back, saying a law Perry signed offering in-state tuition regardless of citizenship status has made the state a magnet for illegal immigrants.
“If there’s someone who has a record as governor with regards to illegal immigration that doesn’t stand up to muster it’s you, not me,” Romney said, pointing to Perry’s opposition to building a border fence.
As the campaign moves into the fall season, immigration has become a test for Republican primary voters who see the candidates’ stances on the issue as symbolic of their commitment to fiscal and social values, said Greg Mueller, a Republican consultant with ties to anti-tax Tea Party activists.
“It’s a national security issue, it’s an economic and cultural issue, and it’s a judicial rule-of-law issue for a broad base of Republican primary voters,” said Mueller.
Since 2006, when President George W. Bush proposed comprehensive immigration legislation, views within the party have shifted toward talk of an impenetrable border fence and away from Bush’s effort to combine a guest-worker program with a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
At the same time, President Barack Obama calls immigration-law overhaul a “moral imperative” as well as a way to improve the economy and national security. Obama says the nation needs to bring illegal immigrants out of an underground economy while stepping up deportations of those who have committed crimes.
Yesterday, the administration reported that a record 396,906 illegal immigrants were removed in the last fiscal year.
The immigration issue rose in prominence in the Republican contest after Perry entered the race. As governor of a border state, he called construction of a fence “idiocy” and signed a law allowing Texas high school students lower, in-state tuition rates at state colleges regardless of residency status.
Last night, Perry said he would crack down on illegal immigration by building a fence in targeted areas, while increasing the number of predator drones and “boots on the ground” patrolling the border.
“Sure, you can build a fence, but it takes anywhere between 10 and 15 years and $30 billion,” he said, during the debate. “There’s a better way.”
Representative Michele Bachmann pounced on Perry’s positions.
“Every person who comes into this country will have to agree that they will not accept taxpayer-subsidized benefits,” said Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, taking a swipe at Perry’s support of in-state tuition rates for undocumented students.
Republican activists have also questioned Romney’s record on the issue, pointing to 2006 and 2007 reports that he repeatedly employed illegal immigrants to tend to his lawn.
Romney said that the workers were hired by an outside landscaping company. As soon as he found out they were undocumented, Romney said he demanded the workers be let go and eventually fired the company.
“It is hard in this country, as an individual homeowner, to know if people who are contractors working in your home, if they’ve hired people that are illegal,” he said last night, promising to put in place a system to conduct background checks.
As Perry and Romney defend their records, other candidates have attempted to woo Republican voters by positioning themselves as the toughest opponents of illegal immigration.
Former pizza company executive Cain proposed an electrified, barbed wire-topped border fence to kill would-be illegal immigrants.
“My fence might be part Great Wall and part electrical technology,” he said, campaigning in Iowa on June 6. “It will be a 20-foot wall, barbed wire, electrified on the top.”
When questioned on his comment on an Oct. 16 broadcast of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Cain dismissed it as a joke.
He reversed course during the debate, saying he wouldn’t “apologize at all for wanting to protect the American citizens.” Cain said he would secure the border with a combination of a fence, technology and increasing the number of armed guards.
Bachmann derided Cain’s comments at an Arizona campaign event, saying a border fence was “no laughing matter.” Over the weekend, she became the only presidential candidate to sign a pledge supporting the construction of a fence across the entire Mexican border.
“It’s OK to talk about this issue,” said Bachmann, who signed the pledge in Perry, Iowa, a town where the meatpacking industry has attracted a large number of Hispanic workers. “Some say it’s not OK to talk about this subject because that somehow means we are prejudiced or bigoted or biased against Hispanics. That’s not what I hear from the people of Iowa. They are tired of paying for other people.”
Republican strategists and politicians say fiery rhetoric may backfire in a general election where Hispanic voters are likely to be a swing demographic.
Hispanics are one of the fastest-growing voting blocs in the country. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials projects that the Hispanic vote will increase 26 percent from 2008 with Hispanics accounting for at least 8.7 percent of the country’s voters.
“It’s an emotional issue and the way we talk about it is important,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who spearheaded efforts last year to draft bipartisan immigration legislation.
A survey released Oct. 17 by polling firm Latino Decisions found that none of the Republican presidential candidates have attracted much attention from Hispanic voters. One in four Hispanic voters have an unfavorable impression of Romney, while 46 percent have no opinion or have never heard of him.
Even fewer -- 22 percent -- approve of Perry and 40 percent couldn’t identify him. Hispanics are far less familiar with the rest of the field: 58 percent have no opinion of Bachmann, 59 percent of Texas Representative Ron Paul, and 73 percent of Cain.
While they won control of the House of Representatives and narrowed their minority in the Senate in the 2010 elections, Republicans lost the Hispanic vote by wide margins. Sixty percent of Latino voters supported Democrats in House races, while 38 percent voted for Republicans, according to exit polling analyzed by the Pew Hispanic Center.
“We’ve lost ground with Hispanic voters,” said Graham. “One of the reasons, I think, is some of the rhetoric around immigration.”
Paul said some voters could view a fence as “symbolic” of an anti-Hispanic sentiment within the party.
“I can understand why someone might look at that,” he said last night. He added, “I don’t think the answer is a fence.”
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