DES MOINES, Iowa — The rift over immigration in the emerging Republican presidential field opened up publicly Saturday, as several potential candidates called for enforcement of existing laws while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham said those living in the U.S. illegally should have a path to legal status.
The policy difference played out at a forum focused on agricultural policy, and will likely remain a key point of debate as the race for the 2016 Republican nomination unfolds. Immigrants are an important part of the workforce in agriculture and food processing in the early caucus state and around the country.
Bush, Graham and seven other presidential prospects, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, were asked about their views on immigration and other topics by the host of the daylong public forum, Bruce Rastetter, an agribusiness magnate and GOP donor.
"Immigrants that are here need to have a path to legalized status," Bush said. "No one I know has a plan to round up illegal immigrants and send them back."
Graham, who helped craft bipartisan immigration legislation that passed the Senate in 2013 but died in the House, said he favored letting some of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally stay, if they met certain conditions, like learning English and paying taxes.
"We need a rational solution to the 11 million, because no Democrat is going to give us everything we want without getting something," the South Carolina Republican said. "But they'll agree with me that crooks are not welcome to stay."
Christie spoke of broadening the guest worker program as one "piece of an overall approach," but he offered no specifics.
Huckabee recommended only allowing in immigrants who say they love America, and barring those seeking government dependence. "I think we meet them at the door and say it may not be a good fit."
Even if immigrants in the U.S. illegally pay taxes, they are ineligible for most federal programs. They cannot legally get food stamps, unemployment benefits, Pell grants or federal student loans. They cannot get Medicaid, except for emergency medical services, and are ineligible for subsidies under President Barack Obama's health law.
Bush called for restrictions on family immigration to make room for a larger workforce based on legal immigrant labor, which is key to his goal of achieving 4 percent economic growth.
Bush and Graham's positions are politically risky in Iowa, where conservatives are disproportionately opposed to a path for legal status for those living here illegally.
"I'm sure there's some support for it, but Iowa Republican caucus-goers don't feel that way," said Chuck Laudner, a former Iowa Republican Party executive director.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in December showed only 37 percent of Republicans in favor of allowing immigrants who are already in the country illegally to become citizens, a step further than Bush's proposed "permanent legal status."
Although Bush received no applause from the audience for his remarks, that may not matter, said Republican fundraiser and Bush supporter Doug Gross.
"He doesn't need a lot of the folks who are going to make that a defining issue," Gross said.
Saturday's discussion also touched on energy, trade and food policy, with many of the candidates grabbing the opportunity to tout any agricultural or Iowa connection they could.