Governor Scott Walker

You may have heard that there has been some confusion around Scott Walker’s position on immigration, in the wake of a report that he told a New Hampshire audience that he’s for citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. The amount of attention paid to this has been way out of proportion, given the facts surrounding Walker’s actual positions.

The real significance of this whole mess, I think, is that the confusion itself underscores the GOP’s broader struggle with this issue, one that has been on display for years now: Many Republicans don’t want to be against legalization for the 11 million under any and all circumstances, but they also don’t want to detail the circumstances under which they can support it.

The Wall Street Journal report that got all the attention said that Walker privately backed the idea of “allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country and to eventually become eligible for citizenship.” This was said to be a shift from his previous claim, in a Fox News interview, that he opposes “amnesty.”

But the degree to which this represents a shift has been exaggerated. In that March 1st Fox News interview, Walker denounced “amnesty,” but also confirmed (just as he supposedly did in New Hampshire) that he could support eventual citizenship, provided the border is secured first:

WALLACE: The question was, can you envision a world where if these people paid a penalty, that they would have a path to citizenship? And you said, sure, that makes sense.

WALKER: I believe there’s a way that you can do that. First and foremost, you’ve got to secure that border or none of these plans make any sense.

This is not different from what the Wall Street Journal reported, which was only that Walker said he could embrace eventual citizenship, without getting into what conditions would have to be met first. That is not necessarily inconsistent with the idea of supporting citizenship after the border is secure (whatever that might mean in practice).

Likely 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on a visit to Texas said those seeking U.S. citizenship must return to their country of origin and get in line. (Reuters)

Now, there has been some shifting here. Walker’s apparent current stance — that he can embrace eventual citizenship, but only provided the border is secured first — is at odds with the stance he held back in 2006, when he supported a specific comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship. In the Fox interview, he acknowledged he no longer supports that particular bill, claiming his views have changed.

But this doesn’t mean there are no circumstances under which he currently supports some form of legal status. He apparently does support this — he confirmed as much in the Fox interview, saying “there’s a way” to do that if the border is secured first. After the Journal story broke, Walker’s spokesperson did add more confusion by claiming that “he does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants.” That is not easy to square with saying there is “a way” to get to citizenship, and Walker’s spokespeople should be pressed on that. Even so, that careful formulation doesn’t preclude supporting legalization in some form.

The most likely conclusion is that Walker doesn’t want to say he’s opposed to legalization for the 11 million under any and all circumstances — which could constrain him from adopting an immigration reform plan as nominee — but also doesn’t want to say he’s for any specific way of accomplishing legalization. And so, his formulation on Fox — there might be a way to get there, if the border is secured — remains Walker’s comfort zone. And it’s very likely he said some version of this in New Hampshire behind closed doors.

This really reflects what has been the GOP problem all along. Republican leaders agree legalization must be part of any solution. But they have refused to do the hard policy work of deciding what specific circumstances (such as real concurrent enforcement benchmarks that go beyond vague bromides about securing the border) they will require as part of a compromise they can embrace that would actually accomplish that. Jeb Bush has gone further than anyone else in challenging the GOP on this issue, by using moralistic language to lean harder into the need for legalization. But even he has suggested we need to secure the border first (which is of a piece with the same dodge Walker and many other Republicans have employed).

Right and left can agree that it would be useful if the GOP primary process prompted the candidates to flesh out their positions a bit more.