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The Candidates on Immigration

August 24, 2008

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Issue Trackers trace the positions of candidates from the 2008 presidential campaign on major issues related to foreign policy.

The rise of globalization, combined with growing concerns over security and terrorism, has transformed immigration into an issue with significant foreign policy implications. In the 2006 midterm elections, immigration emerged as a significant issue in a number of campaigns, although it is not clear how decisive a role it played. The importance of a reformed immigration policy in a broader homeland security strategy has made it a major subject of debate in the 2008 presidential election. This debate escalated surrounding the controversial immigration reform legislation that would have granted temporary guest status to millions of illegal immigrants. That bill stalled in the Senate June 7, 2007 after a cloture motion was rejected, although nearly all of the presidential candidates currently serving as senators voted for that motion.

Democratic Ticket on Immigration

Barack Obama
Democratic Party Nominee - President

President Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant, favors an immigration reform plan that allows illegal immigrants "who are in good standing to pay a fine, learn English, not violate the law, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens," according to his campaign's immigration fact sheet (PDF). He also says the United States should increase the number of Customs and Border Protection personnel, although he has not indicated how many he would add.

Obama, whose Illinois constituents include a high percentage of Mexican immigrants, voted against the English as a National Language Amendment in 2006. Obama proposed three amendments that were included in the Senate Immigration Reform Bill last year, including one that mandates that jobs be offered to American workers at a "prevailing wage" before they are offered to guest workers. Another of these amendments makes it a requirement that employers are able to prove that their workers are all legally permitted to work in the United States. His third amendment grants the FBI $3 million a year to improve efficiency for background checks on immigrants applying for citizenship. Obama has also called for sweeping amnesty for illegal immigrants. However, he voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

Obama opposed an amendment to the Senate immigration reform bill of June 2007 that would prevent immigrants with a criminal record from gaining legal status (AP).

Obama supports granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, and has called it a "public safety concern."

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Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Democratic Party Nominee - Vice President

Biden said in November 2006 that Mexico's corruption, inequality, and its "erstwhile democracy" (AP) are to blame for illegal immigration.

Along with most of his colleagues in the Senate, Biden voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized the construction of a 700-mile fence on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. He also voted for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which he said "enhances our control over the border, allowing us to better deal with future illegal immigrants as well as drug traffickers and potential terrorists." He also supported the act because it provided a path to legalization for the millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.

Biden opposed an amendment (FOX) to the recent immigration reform bill that would have prevented criminals from becoming citizens. That amendment failed.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.

Republican Ticket on Immigration

John McCain
Republican Party Nominee - President

Sen. McCain (R-AZ) has been a moderate voice who supports both increased border security and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. McCain was the only GOP candidate (FOX) to support the failed immigration reform bill in 2007.

McCain says he will implement a "secure, accurate, and reliable electronic employment verification system to ensure that individuals are screened for work eligibility in a real-time fashion." He also says he will create a temporary worker program to "ensure high skilled workers trained and educated in the United States have the opportunity to stay and work in the United States upon graduation."

McCain cosponsored the Senate Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which called for establishing a guest-worker program as well as setting up a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. At a May 2007 debate with Republican presidential candidates, McCain defended his position in this way: "(W)e've got to enforce our border. That's our first and foremost priority. But we also have to have a comprehensive solution and it has to be bipartisan. And I believe we're close to reaching that, and that's what the American people expect us to do."

McCain voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006. With John Edwards, among others, McCain co-sponsored the Save Summer Act of 2004, which would have increased the legal limit on H-2B visas for seasonal nonagricultural laborers by forty thousand. That bill never reached a vote.

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Democratic Primary Candidates on Immigration

Hillary Rodham Clinton
Democratic Primary Candidate

As a New York senator, Clinton's voting record on immigration has been mixed. In May of 2006, she voted in favor of the Senate Immigration Reform Bill (PDF), which allowed for the establishment of a guest-worker program, increased border security, including a virtual wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. That bill, which never made it into law, also established criminal penalties for immigrants who illegally enter the country and those who employ undocumented workers. Clinton voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 but against the separate amendment making English the country’s official language. That bill, which was largely viewed as an anti-immigrant action (Washington Times), eventually passed.

Clinton opposed an amendment (FOX) to the 2007 immigration reform bill that would have prevented criminals from becoming citizens.

Although she initially said she supported a measure (BosGlobe) to grant driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, she said in November 2007 that she opposes the idea. In a January 2008 Democratic debate, Clinton said giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants could put them "at risk, because that is clear evidence that they are not here legally."

Editor's Note: Sen. Clinton withdrew her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 7, 2008.

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Christopher J. Dodd
Democratic Primary Candidate

Sen. Dodd (D-CT) has expressed uneasiness regarding some of the commonly proposed immigration reform initiatives, including a border fence and a blanket guest worker program. Dodd voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, though, he said in a conversation with Felix Rohatyn at the Council on Foreign Relations, “I’m uneasy about these walls being built, although I understand the American public’s appetite for security.” He also voted for the comprehensive Senate Immigration Reform Bill of 2006, though he criticized the bill for including conflicting provisions with regard to the English Language, “one of which,” he said, “could result in some of our own citizens being denied full participation in our society and opportunities to improve English proficiency.” He also said in May 2007 that he is not comfortable with a "blanket guest worker program" (DesMoines Register), though he said he is not opposed to it necessarily.

Dodd voted for the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program in 2006, which grants federal aid to states with a disproportionate number of incarcerated illegal immigrants. Dodd also voted in favor of a failed “compromise amnesty” proposal in April 2006, which would have increased the allotted number of visas for foreign workers.

Dodd opposed an amendment (AP) to the 2007 immigration reform bill that would have prevented immigrants with a criminal record from becoming citizens.

Editor's Note: Sen. Dodd withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 3, 2008.

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John Edwards
Democratic Primary Candidate

The former senator of North Carolina, a state which has experienced a major jump in immigration in the past fifteen years, is in favor of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. At a public event in North Carolina in September 2006, Edwards told the audience that solving the illegal immigration problem “is not rocket science,” and went on to argue that walling off the border is not the solution. Rather, he believes that there should be a path to citizenship (Greensboro News-Record) for illegal immigrants that includes learning English and paying fines. Edwards co-sponsored the Save Summer Act of 2004, which would have increased the legal limit on H-2B visas for seasonal nonagricultural laborers by forty thousand.

Editor's note: Edwards dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination on January 30, 2008.

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Mike Gravel
Democratic Primary Candidate

Gravel favors a guest worker program and supports providing illegal immigrants with a path to legal status. Gravel cites of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a primary cause of the immigration problem. He has said that attempting to deport all the illegal immigrants would be equivalent to Andrew Jackson's "Trail of Tears" campaign against the Native Americans.

Editor's Note: Mike Gravel ended his bid for the Democraticnomination on March 26, 2008. He then ran for the LibertarianParty's presidential nomination before announcing the end ofhis political career on May 25, 2008.

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Dennis Kucinich
Democratic Primary Candidate

Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) has generally supported amnesty for illegal immigrants and has called immigration in its current state “a system that is really a form of slavery."

Kucinich was against most of the key immigration bills that his Democratic colleagues voted for, including the Secure Fence Act, the Immigration Law Enforcement Act of 2006, and the Border Security Bill of 2005, among others. With Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), Kucinich co-sponsored the Family Unity Legalization Act, which would grant legal status to those who have been living in the United States for over five years. The act was not passed.

Editor's Note: Rep. Kucinich withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 25, 2008.

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Bill Richardson
Democratic Primary Candidate

Richardson’s perspective is distinct among candidates because of his Mexican upbringing. As governor of New Mexico, he declared a state of emergency (CNN) on his state’s 180-mile border with Mexico in an attempt to halt smuggling of illegal immigrants and drugs in 2005. On the other hand, Richardson spoke out against the plan to build a fence on the Mexican border, saying it “gets in the way” (AP) of U.S. relations with Mexico. He has argued that border security on both sides of the border is inefficient, and has demanded increased federally funded border security (PBS). In a speech at Georgetown University in December 2006, Richardson criticized criticized proposals by House Republicans for mass deportations.

Editor's Note: Richardson withdrew his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 10, 2008.

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Republican Primary Candidates on Immigration

Sam Brownback
Republican Primary Candidate

Sen. Brownback (R-KS) favors providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship (AP). He has also said that the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security should collaborate in investigations of illegal immigrants. After voting for the Secure Fence Act, Brownback said, “Building 700 miles of fencing along the most vulnerable sections of our southern border goes a long way toward securing the border, and I hope we can use passage of this bill as a starting point toward long-term, comprehensive immigration reform.”

Editor's Note: Sen. Brownback withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on October 19, 2007.

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Rudy Giuliani
Republican Primary Candidate

Giuliani supports some type of path (NYT) to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “If you have twelve million people, to thirteen to fourteen to fifteen million that are here illegally, it is much easier for terrorists and drug dealers to hide,” he said recently. He also said that he is in favor of a border fence and a database with which to keep track of all immigrants.

Giuliani's consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, partly owned Sky Watch L.L.C., a company which says it has created a sensor that can detect illegal immigrants (NYT) crossing the U.S. border. Giuliani Partners gave up ownership of that venture in September 2007.

Giuliani opposed the failed 2007 Senate immigration reform plan, which he called a "typical Washington mess."

As former mayor of the large immigrant melting pot of New York, Giuliani has sought to balance a law-and-order approach with practical measures to handle the illegal immigrant problem. Giuliani has said that House legislation making illegal immigration a felony punishable by up to five years in prison “could not possibly be enforced.” (NYSun) He has said he backs comprehensive immigration reform, as envisioned in the Senate’s 2006 bill.

As mayor of New York City, Giuliani opposed a law (NYT) that would have prevented illegal immigrants from receiving Social Security, food stamps and health care benefits.

Editor's note: Giuliani dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 31, 2008.

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Mike Huckabee
Republican Primary Candidate

Huckabee has avoided some of the harsher language about immigrants used by his fellow Republican candidates. Instead, the former Arkansas governor has a record of sympathetic gestures for illegal immigrants. He has advocated prenatal care for pregnant immigrants and has proposed a scholarship program for illegal immigrants who graduate from Arkansas high schools (Arkansas News Bureau). He also criticized a 2005 federal immigration raid (AP) in Arkansas. Huckabee has expressed support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants under some conditions. In an interview with ABC-TV’s George Stephanopoulos, he said, “We should have a process where people can pay the penalties, step up and accept responsibility for not being here legally.” He added: “The objective is not to be punitive. The objective is to make things right.”

In December 2007, Huckabee released his immigration plan, which included the completion of the border fence with an "interlocking surveillance camera system" by July 1, 2010. He also proposed granting illegal immigrants a 120-day "window to register" with Immigration Services. Those who register would be able to return to their home countries and "face no penalty if they later apply to immigrate or visit." Those who stay, according to his plan, would be deported and "barred from future reentry" for ten years.

Editor's Note: Huckabee withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on March 4, 2008.

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Duncan Hunter
Republican Primary Candidate

Rep. Hunter (R-CA), who represents a district in southern California, has been a prominent conservative voice against illegal immigration. Hunter, who generally advocates an “enforcement-only” approach to dealing with illegal immigrants, co-sponsored the Secure Fence Act of 2006. In 1994, Hunter voted for the Prohibiting Benefits to Undocumented Immigrants Amendment, which denied illegal immigrants’ any emergency food and shelter from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Editor's note: Hunter dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 19, 2008.

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Ron Paul
Republican Primary Candidate

On the Texas Congressman's campaign website, Paul stresses the importance of secure borders and lists a six-point plan for immigration policy that says the U.S. must secure borders, enforce visa rules, and end birthright citizenship. Paul is against amnesty and "welfare for illegal aliens." Paul voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

In February 2008, Paul signed a pledge sponsored by anti-illegal immigration group NumbersUSA that he will "oppose amnesty or any other special path to citizenship for the millions of foreign nationals unlawfully present in the United States."

Editor's Note: Rep. Paul withdrew his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on June 12, 2008.

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Mitt Romney
Republican Primary Candidate

Romney generally took a hard-line approach to illegal immigration. He spoke out against the comprehensive immigration reform bill that stalled in Senate (NYT) in June 2007, calling it "a form of amnesty." (ABC)

Romney says the United States should implement an "enforceable employer verification system" using biometrically-enabled identification cards (PDF) for non-citizens. On the Bill O'Reilly Show in 2006, Romney said, "you have to have a tamper-proof document to make sure that people who are here [and] are aliens are identified and registered, and people cannot hire them unless they're here legally."

As the governor of Massachusetts, Romney received Washington's approval to allow state troopers to enforce federal immigration law (BosGlobe) and arrest illegal immigrants.

Romney advocates cutting federal funding illegal immigrant "sanctuary cities." This has been a key talking point of his campaign rhetoric, and he has often criticized Giuliani, (FOX) saying he turned New York City into such a sanctuary during his time as mayor.

Romney opposes amnesty measures.

Editor's note: Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on February 7, 2008.

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Tom Tancredo
Republican Primary Candidate

A former chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, Rep. Tancredo (R-CO) focused his campaign on combatting illegal immigration. Newsweek has called the Colorado congressman the “loudest, angriest voice  against the estimated 11 million illegal aliens now living in the United States.” Tancredo adamantly opposed the recent Senate immigration bill, which he called "the worst piece of legislation to come down the pike in a long time." He criticized the idea of amnesty (WashPost), saying “it rewards people who have broken the law, and makes a mockery of our legal system.” Tancredo also co-sponsored a bill that would deny “birthright citizenship” to the children of illegal immigrants, despite concerns that such a law would violate the 14th amendment.

Editor's Note: Congressman Tancredo formally withdrew his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination on December 20, 2007.

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Fred Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson emphasizes tougher border enforcement to impede illegal immigration and opposes a path to citizenship for the estimated twelve million currently in the country illegally. He was critical of the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that stalled in Congress in 2007. “We should scrap this ‘comprehensive’ immigration bill and the whole debate until the government can show the American people that we have secured the borders—or at least made great headway,” he said in May 2007.

He opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants, and supports increased border security. In 1996, Thompson voted in favor of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which provided for additional border security personnel. It also made penalties for immigration document fraud and smuggling more stringent. 

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on January 22, 2008.

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Tommy Thompson
Republican Primary Candidate

Thompson is in favor of a guest worker program and “opposes amnesty or a pathway to legalization,” the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports.

Editor's note: Thompson dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination on August 12, 2007.

Click here for this candidate's position on other top foreign policy issues.