For the second time in less than a week, Governor Christie on Tuesday used a question about immigration to draw a distinction between undocumented residents who want to work and those who want to vote.
And that could be a sign that, as Christie tries to navigate his way through a crowded field of potential candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, he is preparing an immigration position that would allow people without proper documentation to stay in the country to work but not to become citizens.
A stance like that would put him at odds with the bipartisan immigration reform agreement that passed the Senate in 2013 and died in the House. But it would also put Christie at odds with conservatives in his own party, including some presidential hopefuls, who want all undocumented workers to be forced to return to their native countries.
Christie has had a complicated record on immigration since becoming governor in 2010. He won praise from immigration advocates for signing a law that allowed children without legal status to receive in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. But he also was harshly criticized by many of those same advocates for having the state join a lawsuit challenging President Obama’s executive orders that would allow many undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation.
Asked about immigration by an international finance executive at a trade and cultural conference at the State Department sponsored by a pair of non-profit groups, Christie said New Jersey’s population is one of the nation’s most diverse.
“In New Jersey we have a number of folks who are there in undocumented status and I’ve met many of these folks,” he said. “I will tell you this. None of them have ever come to me and said the reason we came here, governor, was to vote. They all say they came to work.”
He made similar comments last week in New Hampshire, where he took things a step further.
“You have this whole argument [that] the Democratic Party tries to foist upon us about path to citizenship,” he said in Londonderry, N.H. “I will tell you that most folks that I’ve met in my state who have come here to this country illegally, have come here because they want to work. Because they want to support themselves, they want to support their families. So let’s stop having this argument about path to citizenship.”
Sara Cullinane, deputy director of Make the Road NJ, an immigrant rights group in Elizabeth, said it was “ridiculous” to say that a pathway to citizenship wasn’t important.
“Sure, people come to work and support their families, but they stay and plant roots and form part of the fabric of our country,” she said. “There’s many other reasons, not just work, for staying here.”
While Christie’s position is unlikely to be supported by immigration advocates, he also drew criticism in his own party for bluntly rejecting the idea of mass deportation.
“There are not enough law-enforcement people in the entire country if all they were doing every day was rounding people up to deport them,” Christie said in Londonderry. He also told that audience he did not support building a wall along the Mexico border because technology and manpower could provide better enforcement, and that stricter treatment of employers who hire immigrants without the proper status would reduce the demand for workers entering the country illegally.
At the State Department, Christie also said he did not believe undocumented immigrants would “engage in self-deportation,” an idea suggested in 2012 by presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the candidate Christie had aggressively supported. He also said there would have to be better border security before the American people would accept a broader reform of immigration laws.
Christie was invited to the State Department to speak at the 45th annual Conference of the Americas, a program sponsored by the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas, groups that promote trade and political, social and economic dialogue between the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada.
As the only governor on a program that also included members of the Cabinet, the president of Honduras and the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Christie also fielded questions about his trips to Canada and Mexico last year.
Christie criticized Obama for vetoing a bill to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast, saying that friendly nations should provide such accommodations to each other. He also said that Cuba should return Joanne Chesimard, who was convicted of slaying a New Jersey state trooper and has been sheltered in Cuba since her escape from a Hunterdon County prison, before relations with the United States are normalized.
“I have no problem with Cuba being welcomed back into the family of civilized nations, but you have to be civilized and harboring a cop killer is not civilized conduct,” Christie said.
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