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Immigration Takes Center Stage in 2016 Presidential Campaign

  • Cindy Saine

On the issue of immigration, the only thing Democrats and Republicans really agree on is that the U.S. system is broken.

President Barack Obama and the Democratic presidential candidates support comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship. But Republican candidates see any granting of legal status as "illegal amnesty."

The immigration issue has unexpectedly taken center stage in the 2016 presidential campaign, mainly because of Republican candidate Donald Trump, who currently leads party preference polls.

Trump and his Republican rivals have merged the issue of illegal immigration with economic anxieties and national security fears. This is clear in political ads, like one by Senator Ted Cruz in which he says the mainstream media don't often see immigration as "an economic issue. But I can tell you, it is a very personal economic issue.”

In one Trump ad, a narrator says the billionaire candidate "will stop illegal immigration by building a wall on our southern border that Mexico will pay for.”

Trump raised the issue last June, making it the centerpiece of his campaign. He said in one campaign speech that "when Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They are rapists.”

Many were outraged by Trump’s language, but he is tapping into real concerns many Americans have, said John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“There is a strong portion of the Republican Party which is worried about immigration," he said, "and Donald Trump seized his lead by making that his issue. And others may echo what he has to say, but he is the one who really stood up on that issue where others did not stand up as strongly.”

Other Republican candidates have followed Trump’s lead on immigration and on rejecting Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

'Toward the extreme'

But on the Democratic side of the race, the candidates are competing to denounce what they call "anti-immigrant rhetoric" from Republicans.

"Not a single Republican candidate — not one — clearly and consistently supports a real path to citizenship," Hillary Clinton said in one campaign speech. "[Senator Marco] Rubio actually helped write the 2013 immigration bill. Now he renounces it. They're all moving toward the extreme and away from the rest of America."

Another Democratic candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, has expressed dismay "that so many voices, including some within the Democratic Party, were insisting that large numbers of immigrant children at the [Mexican] border, caught in a humanitarian crisis, be sent back. The United States has an international responsibility to children and families seeking refugee status."

A recent poll found that 80 percent of Americans consider immigration to be an important factor in choosing whom to vote for — on either side of this divisive issue.

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