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Reviewing GOP Presidential Candidates' Stand On Immigration

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This week has clarified, somewhat, a big Republican Party divide on immigration. A televised debate showcased that divide, which has only widened as the candidates campaigned afterward. NPR's Domenico Montanaro of our politics team is tracking this. He's going to help us work through what everybody's saying. Hi, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And let's listen to a couple of the candidates. Donald Trump, of course, is on one side calling to deport all 11 million people believed to be in the U.S. illegally.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

DONALD TRUMP: We're a country of laws. We either have a country or we don't have a country. We are a country of laws.

INSKEEP: And Republican Jeb Bush is on the other side or, let's say, another side, saying that mass deportation is simply not possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

JEB BUSH: And it would tear communities apart.

(APPLAUSE)

BUSH: And it would send a signal that we're not the kind of country that I know America is. And even having this conversation sends a powerful signal. They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this.

INSKEEP: OK, he's referring to the politics there. So Domenico, what are the politics of that divide among Republicans?

MONTANARO: Well, Jeb Bush is right on the politics. I mean, I think the Clinton campaign, the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Martin O'Malley campaign, are certainly doing high-fives when it comes to this issue because after 2012, when Republicans got a record low number of Hispanics on their side, they had tried to craft an autopsy of sorts to say that we need to appeal more to Hispanics. And this is not the conversation, the discussion, that Republicans wanted to have in this election. You remember, John McCain in 2007, 2008, kind of had to go on an apology tour for his stance on immigration before he was able to wind up winning the nomination. And, you know, someone like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, they feel like you need to change the tone on this. But, you know, if you look at the polling on this, I think it really explains the split. And it wouldn't be that surprising because half of national Republicans say they're in favor of citizenship, of a path to citizenship. In Iowa, only a third of Republicans say that. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the country at large say that they're in favor of a path to citizenship. They talk about this path to legal status, which is this very fine line that they walk because a broader, narrow majority of Republicans are in favor of that nationally.

INSKEEP: So what we're talking about here is a Republican electorate that has different beliefs than the electorate at large, which creates a complex situation for whoever would end up being the Republican nominee. Senator Marco Rubio, one of the people who wants to be that nominee, was on this program earlier in the week and he made an intricate statement. He said at one point he is open to a path to citizenship, though he says it would take years and years.

MARCO RUBIO: Just through the normal process that anybody else would use. They would have to meet the criteria of the merit-based system, they would have to wait in line behind everyone who's applied before them. That is a very long path. I personally am open to that. That is not a majority position in my party, and it's not going to be easy to do.

INSKEEP: So difficult, in fact, that he backed away from a Senate bill that would've tried to do that.

MONTANARO: You know, this is fascinating to me. I followed the comprehensive immigration bill fight pretty closely, and Rubio was one of the architects of that bill. He only backed away to say, back then, that look, President Obama can't be trusted by Republicans to enforce the law so, you know, we can't go ahead with a massive bill anymore. But what you're hearing from him is that he's largely in favor of the framework of that bill. That bill called for about 13 years of a path to citizenship. And what's funny is that Jeb Bush had been against the path to citizenship before he was for it because he supported that comprehensive immigration bill and now is against it again. Meanwhile, other Republicans, like Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul, have jumped on Marco Rubio saying, aha, we see what we've got here. Ted Cruz telling talk radio yesterday, as Scripture says, you shall know them based on their fruits. And meanwhile, Cruz is getting criticized because of his support for H-1B visas to increase the number of legal immigrants for tech workers. So it's a big mess.

INSKEEP: And, of course, Democrats, as you mentioned, have been watching all of this. Hillary Clinton over the summer talked to CNN, and she essentially looked at all these divides between Republicans and lumped them all back together.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: They're on a spectrum of, you know, hostility, which I think is really regrettable in a nation of immigrants like ours, all the way to kind of grudging acceptance but refusal to go with a pathway to citizenship. I think that's a mistake.

INSKEEP: Is Hillary Clinton trying to make sure that she is to the left of any possible Republican opponent?

MONTANARO: Well, I think she's almost the polar opposite of someone even like Donald Trump. I mean, she goes even further than President Obama. She would expand his executive actions to protect many immigrants in the country illegally. And look, Democrats are loving this issue. They're going to be talking about it at their debate tomorrow night. Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley, the former governor of Maryland, they - you're going to hear a very different side on immigration if they talk about it.

INSKEEP: Domenico, thanks very much.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.