WASHINGTON — Texas Sen. Phil Gramm thinks Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole isn't tough enough on denying social welfare benefits to legal immigrants who are not yet citizens. But Gramm thinks California Gov. Pete Wilson is too tough when he proposes a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan thinks Gramm, Dole and Wilson are all ducking the core question of whether the United States can absorb the large flow of legal immigrants arriving every year.
In these exchanges are the opening notes of an internal debate that could become one of the most illuminating conflicts in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Immigration, like foreign trade and military engagement abroad, is dividing the GOP between the internationalist consensus that has dominated the party since World War II and a rapidly growing economic-nationalist wing symbolized by Buchanan.
"We are seeing very different visions about where America's future is," said Linda Chavez, a former aide to then-President Ronald Reagan who runs the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Washington. "What I see developing is a renaissance in the isolationist wing of the Republican Party."
The debate is just taking form, with most of the candidates still defining their positions, but already important differences are emerging. The sharpest exchanges have come between Dole and Gramm--with the two men trading pointed press releases in the last few days about Gramm's support for denying legal immigrants access to welfare.
An even more significant spur to debate may be Buchanan's recent announcement of a comprehensive program to reduce both legal and illegal immigration. The cornerstone of Buchanan's plan is a five-year moratorium on most forms of legal immigration.
In a signal of the divisions that the immigration issue is likely to cause in the GOP, the second-ranking Republican in the House, Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, staked out the very opposite pole of the debate the day after Buchanan issued his proposal. In a speech to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, Armey issued a ringing defense of legal immigration and suggested it should be expanded.
"Should we reduce legal immigration?" Armey asked. "Well, I'm hard-pressed to think of a single problem that would be solved by shutting off the supply of willing and eager new Americans. If anything . . . we should be thinking about increasing legal immigration."
Those diametrical views herald the opening of a new front in the immigration struggle. Since immigration surged into public attention through the passage of California's Proposition 187 last year, politicians have focused primarily on reducing the level of illegal immigration.
But while some policy disputes continue over illegal immigration--for example, an unusual alliance of conservatives and civil libertarians oppose President Clinton's plan to test a national registry that would allow employers to check the validity of Social Security cards presented by job applicants--a broad policy consensus exists on many other proposals, such as beefing up the Border Patrol and experimenting with new means of reducing document fraud. That consensus in both parties could dampen the political impact of the debate over illegal immigration.
The proposals on that front that could generate more sparks in the GOP presidential race have dimmer legislative prospects, although they offer revealing insights on how far candidates are willing to take the crusade against illegal immigration.
Wilson and Buchanan are urging a constitutional amendment to deny citizenship to illegal immigrants' children born on U.S. soil. The Constitution currently provides that all people born in the United States are citizens, regardless of their parents' status. Gramm, who wants to tighten enforcement along the border, has denounced an amendment to deny citizenship, arguing that it could increase social unrest by creating a large class of disaffected residents. Gramm also opposes Wilson's call for a national version of Proposition 187, which denies all social services except emergency medical care to illegal immigrants.
On legal immigration, in contrast, Buchanan's call for a moratorium could have the same effect as Wilson's call for a national Proposition 187. Although the immediate legislative prospects for a moratorium proposal are negligible, Buchanan's forceful advocacy of the idea likely will compel the other GOP presidential hopefuls to clarify their views on legal immigration--an issue that could ultimately evoke even stronger passions than illegal immigration.
"This move by Buchanan really heralds a new era of immigration debate for presidential politics," says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports tighter restrictions on immigration.