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By Dave Umhoefer February 4, 2015

Did Scott Walker flip-flop on a immigration and a pathway to citizenship?

Editor's note: We rated this a Half Flip on Feb. 4, 2015 based on Gov. Walker's statements to date at that time. Subsequently, the governor disavowed his previous endorsement of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. We revisted his position in an item published March 6, 2015, with a new ruling of Full Flop.


 The left-wing group Media Matters for America cried flip-flop after Gov. Scott Walker bluntly told ABC News he opposed "amnesty" for illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Walker, the group said in blog post, previously had supported a pathway to citizenship advocated by lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

With Walker garnering plenty of attention amid a crowded field of potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates, let’s put this one to the Flip-O-Meter.

Our standard disclaimer applies: The Flip-O-Meter is not designed to say whether any change in position is good policy or good politics. Rather, it strictly looks at whether a public official has been consistent in his or her stated views on a topic.

In this case, we have visited Walker’s statements on immigration before, notably in August 2013, when we examined how Republicans were framing the issue in the wake of President Barack Obama’s re-election win with strong support from Hispanics.

In the past, Walker has been hard to pin down on the question, and has made seemingly contradictory statements.

So we were struck by Walker’s direct language and tone Feb. 1, 2015 in the "This Week" interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz.

Raddatz: "We know you want to fix the border and fix the immigration system, but what would you do about the 11 million undocumented who are still here?

Walker: "I think for sure, we need to secure the border. I think we need to enforce the legal system. I'm not for amnesty…"

In making the comments, did Walker change his position?

Here are some key past statements he’s made, all in 2013:

-- At a February 2013 national conference hosted by Politico, Walker said fixing the legal immigration system should come first, but said the next step is we "gotta embrace" a "legal pathway" for those here unlawfully. He did not elaborate on what he meant.

-- In a July 2013 interview with Wausau (Wis.) Daily Herald staffers, Walker said "it makes sense" that people could not only stay here but get citizenship with the right mix of penalties and waiting periods and other requirements.

-- In 2013 and later, Walker didn’t endorse any specific bill in Congress that would have allowed illegal immigrants to stay here. But at the Politico conference, he didn’t dismiss legislative action if some "nuances" were addressed.

-- At that conference he flatly opposed deporting people who are here unlawfully, saying "you’ve got to find a way to make it legally possible for people moving forward."

Soon after Walker’s reported comments sympathetic to some kind of path to citizenship made headlines, he started to walk back the idea he had supported such a thing.

His spokesman told us in August 2013 that Walker had endorsed no specific policy or bill. And Walker said in November 2013 on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he had not meant to back a pathway.

Now let’s revisit the recent ABC interview in more depth.

In that interview, Walker also said, "I’m not an advocate of the plans that have been pushed here in Washington" to allow those here to remain.

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That’s arguably more dismissive than he’s been before. But Walker added that he would roll out a plan of his own to address the issue.

And he tossed in what sounded like softening remarks, saying "we’ve got to have a healthy balance. We’re a country both of immigrants and of laws. We can’t ignore the laws in this country, can't ignore the people who come in, whether it’s from Mexico or Central America."

Finally, Walker told Raddatz he was not advocating deporting the estimated 11 million undocumented residents in the country.

He summed up his position this way: "I am saying in the end, we need to enforce the laws in the United States, and we need to find a way for people to have a legitimate legal immigration system in this country, and that does not mean amnesty."

What to make of Walker’s remarks?

Walker campaign spokesman Tom Evenson said they were consistent with his past comments on what to do with those living here illegally. Walker does not consider the penalty-laden pathway to legal status that he endorsed in 2013 "amnesty," and he’s not advocating amnesty now, he said.

For help, we turned to two groups advocating on this issue.

An advocate with a group that backs a path to citizenship agreed Walker’s comments were vague, but detected a change in his words and actions.

Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice, noted Walker said nothing in the spirit of his 2013 comments on finding a way, eventually, to allow people to stay.

His goal "is to be as vague as possible so that he can court hard-right anti-immigrant voters while remaining viable in the general election," she said.

Tramonte said Walker has indirectly backed deportations by joining a lawsuit challenging President Obama’s authority to issue a November 2014 executive order on immigration.

That order protected from deportation some 4.1 million parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, and hundreds of thousands more young people.

We also spoke with Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). The group is a leading critic of legalizing the status of people who jumped the line to get in.

Walker’s description of his views as anti-amnesty doesn’t necessarily mean much, Mehlman said. Republicans, even if they want to find a way to let illegal immigrants remain here, reject the "amnesty" label for political reasons, he said.

On the substance of Walker’s remarks, Mehlman said that, coming in such a brief exchange, Walker’s comments were too cryptic to really evaluate his position.

Mehlman’s view: Walker really hasn’t backed away from his 2013 statements, so in they eyes of FAIR, he still supports what some might term amnesty.

"Politicians from both parties who support granting legal status to millions of illegal aliens go to great pains to define what they support as something other than amnesty," he said.

Our rating

We don’t see a Full Flop by Walker here.

Walker didn’t directly disavow his 2013 remarks -- or repeat them for that matter. And the truth is that we don’t really know whether he has a completely new position, because he wasn’t asked to clarify his views in detail. All we know is he’s not going to call his plan "amnesty" when it comes out.

We do see inconsistencies in Walker’s framing of his views and the tone of his remarks as he begins to court conservative GOP primary voters -- including leaving a tough-sounding impression about handling illegal immigrants.

On the meter, inconsistent statements or a partial change of position earn a Half Flip. That fits here. 


More on Scott Walker

For profiles and stories on Scott Walker and 2016 presidential politics, go to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Scott Walker page.

Our Sources

ABC News This Week, Scott Walker interview, Feb. 1, 2015

Email exchange with Lynn Tramonte, deputy director, America’s Voice, Feb. 2, 2015

Email exchange with Ira Mehlman, spokesman, Federation for American Immigration Reform, Feb. 2, 2015

Email exchange with Tom Evenson, Walker campaign spokesman, Feb. 3, 2015

PolitiFact Wisconsin and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stories as noted

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Dave Umhoefer

Did Scott Walker flip-flop on a immigration and a pathway to citizenship?

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