Scott Walker flip-flops on immigration reform: Is that bad?

Fresh off a strong second-place showing in the entirely meaningless straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker certainly seems to be getting in line with conservative thinking on the topics of the day:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a presumptive 2016 Republican presidential candidate, says he has changed his immigration stance and no longer backs comprehensive reform that would allow illegal immigrants to be penalized but remain in the country.

“My view has changed,” Walker said in a “Fox News Sunday” interview taped Friday. “I’m flat out saying it.”

Walker in 2013 said a plan in which illegal immigrants can become United States citizens by first paying penalties and enduring a waiting period “makes sense.”

However, he is now saying such a plan is tantamount to amnesty, amid criticism that he has flip-flopped on that issue and others – including right-to-work legislation in his home state.

“I don’t believe in amnesty,” said Walker, who finished second Saturday in the Conservative Political Action Conference’s straw poll for potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates. “We need to secure the border. We ultimately need to put in place a system that works – a legal immigration system that works.”

Walker also is among the 25 Republican governors who have joined in a lawsuit challenging the president’s 2014 executive action that defers deportation for millions of illegal immigrants.

This contrasts significantly with comments that Walker made during a July 2013 interview with a local Wisconsin newspaper’s editorial board, as well as during a Politico-sponsored conference in February of that year:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said Friday that he supports a pathway to citizenship to illegal immigrants but said that people who are waiting in line should have “first preference.”

“You’ve got to find a way to say that people who are in line right now have first preference,” the Republican governor said at POLITICO’s third annual State Solutions Conference in Washington.

And while Republicans – including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – have recently been outspoken about the need for immigration reform, Walker said that the issue is the country needs to deal with and not just Republicans.

Walker said that in addition to not having enough visas for immigrants is that the system in general is broken.

“We just have a broken system. And to me, if somebody wants to come in and live the American dream and work hard … we should have a system that works and let’s people in,” Walker told POLITICO’s Jonathan Martin at the event.

He added: “The vast majority of people want to come here for the right reasons. They want to live the American dream.”

This isn’t entirely surprising, of course. Walker is quite obviously preparing to run for president in 2016, a possibility he likely wasn’t considering nearly as seriously some two years ago when these questions first came up, and the truth of the matter is that support for any form of immigration reform that involves what the tea party crowd considers to be “amnesty” for the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants estimated to be in the country is pretty much a deal breaker. Jeb Bush’s support for such reforms – and his continued insistence, even this past week at CPAC, that there will eventually have to be some kind of legalization for these people – is the main reason that he is rejected by the hard right. Bush’s political protégé, and possible 2016 rival, Marco Rubio was once a tea party darling after his win in the Florida US Senate race in 2010, but his star faded quickly two years ago when he became one of the most prominent Republicans to cross the aisle and support the Senate immigration reform bill. Indeed, Rubio finished worse in the CPAC Straw Poll than Bush himself did, which is perhaps the greatest indication of how far his star has fallen among the hard-right wing of the Republican Party thanks to his support for immigration reform. And that happened notwithstanding the fact that Rubio has since backed away from the Senate bill, has criticized the DREAM Act, and has opposed the president’s initiatives for temporary immigration relief, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). Given all of this, I suppose, Walker likely considered it to be in his interests to play it safe on immigration by backing the restrictionists rather than staking out the riskier pro-reform position taken by Bush and Rubio.

I’m often reluctant to criticize politicians on the flip-flopping charge because there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with someone who changes their mind. Should a politician, or anyone for that matter, be forced to stick with policy positions they took in the past just because they’re on the record? If that were the case, then public opinion would never change on any issue. Take the issue of same-sex marriage, for example. It wasn’t that long ago that the vast majority of Americans opposed the idea of same-sex marriage, as did the majority of politicians in both political parties. Over time, public opinion has changed on that issue and the public has become more accepting of the idea of marriage equality, which has also led politicians to do the same. President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden all opposed same-sex marriage and have since changed their position. The same goes for countless others. Are they to be denounced as “flip-floppers” because they changed their mind? That seems to me to send the wrong signal since we want people to change their minds when they are wrong.

Walker’s problem, of course, is that he clearly has changed positions on this issue and it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t done so for purely political purposes. Prior to backing away from his previous support for immigration reform, Walker had been receiving criticism from many on the right for his previous support for the idea and, heading into CPAC, it was seemingly one of the few marks against him from people on the right. Changing his position so blatantly and, at least so far, with little explanation for exactly why his previous support for some kind of legalization for undocumented immigrants changed, and, unless he’s able to, it’s hard to believe that it was for anything other than blatantly political reasons. That’s the kind of ‘flip-flopping” that it’s hard to defend.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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Scott Walker flip-flops on immigration reform: Is that bad?
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