Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker continues to chart a middle path on the issue of undocumented immigrants.
At a meeting of the National Governors Association in Nashville this weekend, Walker bemoaned the dramatic increase in unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. illegally, saying that the thought of the dangers such children risk to cross the border almost brings him “to tears.”
“You think of the trauma these kids are going through to get here, and you think of the trauma before that,” he said. “I put them on my own personal prayer list.”
Walker did not directly answer the question of what should be done with immigrant youngsters, saying only that simply releasing them into American society is problematic.
“If they go with people without legal status, our concern is that these children will just suddenly be gone and we’re not going to see them and that’ll just encourage more kids to come,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Walker did not suggest any solutions.
"Obviously, this is a heartbreaking humanitarian issue," Walker spokesperson Jocelyn Webster told the Cap Times. "However, this is a federal issue for which the federal government must find a solution."
The compassion Walker is voicing for the refugees echoes his initial response in 2010 to the controversial law passed in Arizona that empowered police officers to demand immigration papers from those suspected of being in the country illegally during arrests, traffic stops and other “lawful contacts.” Critics said the law would inevitably lead to racial profiling and harassment of Latino residents.
"I have serious concerns about the Arizona law — both because the law impedes on the inherent right of the federal government to do its job and to protect our borders, and also because in America we don't want our citizens getting pulled over because of how they look," said the initial statement from the then-Milwaukee County executive, who was in the middle of his first campaign for governor.
But after Mark Neumann, Walker’s opponent in the Republican primary, attacked him on the issue, Walker quickly walked back his initial position, saying he had researched the Arizona law further and would be “comfortable” supporting a similar policy in Wisconsin.
Since becoming governor, Walker has made clear that he is not interested in enacting such a law. In December 2012, he told reporters that although he wouldn’t promise to veto a bill passed by the Legislature, he would exert his political influence to make sure that the legislation never came to a vote.
“I think that would be a huge distraction for us in the state,” he said. “There’s our niche and our priorities. I don’t think that falls into one of those priorities, so I would certainly hope that the Legislature didn’t spend time focusing on that, instead focused on the economy.”
If Walker hopes to be a viable presidential candidate, there are a couple of significant political forces that will guide him towards conciliatory rhetoric on immigration.
The first is that, as Walker and other top Republicans have acknowledged, the GOP’s association with anti-immigrant sentiment has deeply wounded the party’s ability to court Latino voters, an increasingly large segment of the American electorate. George W. Bush, who pushed unsuccessfully for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, won 44 percent of Latino voters in 2004, but Mitt Romney, who was forced to talk tough on immigration during a competitive GOP primary, only mustered 27 percent of Latino votes against Barack Obama in 2012.
Also, many of Walker’s most influential financial backers in the business world, including the Koch brothers, favor less restrictive immigration policies. The Wall Street Journal editorial board, which is closely aligned with many of the “free market” pressure groups that have spent millions promoting candidates such as Walker, famously proposed a constitutional amendment in 1984 declaring, “There shall be open borders.”
The political force that keeps Walker from endorsing immigration compromises are the Republican primary voters, a strong contingent of whom are hostile to candidates who appear friendly to any immigration policy that could be described as “amnesty.”
Although Neumann’s attempts to seize on this dynamic were unsuccessful in 2010, other candidates in primaries have used the immigration issue against moderate or “establishment” Republicans to great effect. The most prominent example came last month, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., was ousted in a primary by an upstart tea party challenger who highlighted Cantor’s past support for immigration reform.