Gov. Scott Walker’s latest surprise on the crucial topic of immigration last week earned him grief from his fellow conservatives.

Walker staked out uncharted — and some political scientists say risky — ground when he said he favored lower levels of legal immigration to protect the jobs and wages of workers already here.

“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,” Walker told conservative commentator Glenn Beck.

Walker said he had talked with Alabama Republican Rep. Jeff Sessions, chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee, who had previously been a rare voice in calling for fewer legal immigrants.

Some thought Walker might have misspoken because rolling back legal immigration is opposed by business groups and considered offensive to recent immigrants. But he said it again while he was campaigning in Iowa over the weekend.

The GOP is still smarting from Mitt Romney’s poor showing with the growing Hispanic electorate in the party’s 2012 defeat — attributed in part to the eventual nominee’s suggestion of “self-deportation,” or making it so difficult for workers without legal status to get jobs that they choose to leave the U.S.

Walker noted that immigration “is a fundamentally lost issue by many in elected positions today.”

Previously, debate among the likely Republican presidential candidates has been about whether immigrants who live in the U.S. illegally should be granted a path to citizenship or a way to achieve legal status.

The Wisconsingovernor may be trying to distinguish himself from the large field of potential 2016 GOP candidates by moving further to the right, where Republican primary voters live, said Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll.

“There is a big gap between what the American public in general thinks about immigration and what the Republican primary electorate thinks,” Franklin said.

Walker’s decision to unveil his position to Beck may be indicative of the gap between grass-roots conservatives who oppose immigration and businesses that depend on it, Franklin said.

“He didn’t do this at the Chamber of Commerce, where they have a different view on the subject,” Franklin said.

Immigration is a minefield for Republicans because conservative blue-collar workers worry that immigrants are taking their jobs and driving down wages while many of the business interests that contribute money to GOP campaigns want more workers to be available, Franklin said.

Even in Wisconsin, many conservative-leaning farmers depend on migrant workers, he said.

‘On dangerous cliff’

Walker’s latest stance may be another symptom of how new he is to the national stage, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor who founded Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a widely read nonpartisan political analysis newsletter. Sabato ranks Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as the most viable current alternatives to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whom he considers the front-runner.

“He’s out there on the edge of a dangerous cliff,” Sabato said of Walker. “He is proving that he’s green. He’s green on foreign policy and he’s green on domestic policy like immigration.”

Walker is positioning himself as the champion of the blue-collar worker, Sabato said, but he needs to be careful not to move so far to the right that he becomes unable to win in the general election.

The billionaire conservative Koch brothers last week said Walker, Rubio and Bush were among five hopefuls they saw who were viable candidates with palatable messages. However, after Walker’s statement on legal immigration surfaced, the leader of a Koch-seeded Latino voter initiative said such a position was not viable, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Any call, by anyone, to further restrict legal immigration is not a viable, nor an acceptable policy remedy,” Daniel Garza, the executive director of the Libre Initiative, said Tuesday.

“That should tell Walker something right there, because he’s counting on the Koch brothers,” Sabato said. “Limits on legal immigration — this is interpreted as code language by many, and it turns them off.”

AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Our American Revival, the organization formed to support Walker’s potential presidential bid, didn’t respond to State Journal requests for comment. However she addressed the legal immigration issue for Time magazine.

“(Walker) 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,” Time quoted her saying.

Position has changed

Walker’s position on illegal immigration has already changed at least once. Two years ago he favored a path to citizenship — called “amnesty” by some — for immigrants in the U.S. illegally. On March 1 he told Fox News he changed his mind after talking to governors of border states.

Then this month the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post reported that on March 13 Walker told a business group in the early primary state of New Hampshire that he wants a path to citizenship. The Post quoted a spokeswoman denying that he supports citizenship.

UW-Madison political scientist Ken Mayer said Walker’s move may be driven by a simple need to stand out in the crowded GOP field, but he needs to be cautious about how often he changes his position on issues.

“It’s important that candidates aren’t perceived as doing it for purely opportunistic reasons,” Mayer said. “He leaves himself open to that criticism.”

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.