Why the GOP’s immigration debate is complicated in New Hampshire

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The voter at Marco Rubio’s town hall meeting was worried. One of his most trusted employees, Fernando, is an undocumented immigrant. “He hasn’t raped anybody,” the man said. “He hasn’t stolen anything.” What would Rubio do as president to help Fernando stay here?

After assuring voters that he wanted to secure borders, the senator from Florida said that, when it comes to Fernando and other undocumented immigrants who are not criminals, “we’ll figure something out.”

After a year in which hard-line anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric has dominated the Republican campaign, geared largely toward conservative voters who turned out in last week’s Iowa caucuses, the days leading up to the New Hampshire primary have offered reminders that the issue remains complicated for the GOP.

Front-runners Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) have stuck to their position that illegal immigrants should be deported. Both reiterated that view during Saturday night’s debate. Trump alluded to his past statements — in which he described Mexicans coming across the border as “rapists” — as evidence that he had the right personality to be president.

“I hit immigration, I hit it very hard,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, the temperament,’ because I talked about illegal immigration. Now, everybody’s coming to me, they’re all trying to say, ‘Well, he’s right, we have to come to him.’ ”

But New Hampshire is one of many primary states where views on immigration among Republican voters are more mixed. While many conservatives support deporting the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, other GOP voters are often in line with the business community, which relies on migrant labor, and with party leaders who have pressed for a softer tone to avoid alienating Hispanic voters. The chamber-of-commerce wing of the party is also influential in South Carolina, home to another crucial primary this month, and in later states such as Florida, where state-level Republicans have won elections by carving out middle-of-the-road stances on immigration.

In New Hampshire, for instance, the state’s popular Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte, voted in favor of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” bill co-authored by Rubio that would have created a path to citizenship.

Eleven percent of voters here said in a CNN-WMUR poll that immigration is their top primary issue, compared with 34 percent who cited foreign policy and national security and 26 percent who said jobs and the economy. There is little suggestion here, as there is in some other states, that illegal immigrants are taking away jobs. There are only 15,000 undocumented immigrants in this state of 1.3 million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and the state’s unemployment rate is 3.1 percent.

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