Gov. Scott Walker has refused twice in as many weeks to comment on President Donald Trump’s recent immigration pronouncements, saying both times they are a federal issue.
In plenty of other cases the governor has commented on national matters, including Monday when he took issue with Trump on tariffs and in April when he praised Trump’s border policies.
Walker’s responses on immigration in recent days highlight how he’s trying to navigate a thorny political issue just months before he stands for re-election for a third term.
Mike Wagner, a UW-Madison journalism professor who studies political messaging, said “there is a fissure between the most loyal supporters of the president and most other Republicans when it comes to which immigration policies people favor.”
“Gov. Walker is in a difficult political position where he might alienate members of the party’s base with a more moderate stance on immigration and alienate a 60 percent majority of Wisconsin voters if he aligns himself with some of the more controversial elements of President Trump’s pronouncements and policies about immigration,” Wagner said.
On Monday, Walker refused to comment on Trump’s statement questioning whether detained immigrants should receive basic due process rights, saying “that’s a federal jurisdiction.”
But in response to another question, he explained that he wants to reduce or eliminate international tariffs imposed by the Trump administration that led to Harley-Davidson’s announcement Monday that it is moving some production overseas.
“Obviously, tariffs we just talked about are a federal issue, but they directly impact the businesses in the state of Wisconsin,” Walker said.
When it was pointed out that immigrant labor has a major impact on the state’s dairy industry and Walker’s own re-election campaign has used the deployment of Wisconsin National Guard troops to the border in online ads, Walker continued to resist taking a position on immigration.
“I’ve got my hands full with things here in Wisconsin,” Walker said. “I could comment on every single thing in the federal government and it might be good for the media for stories, but that’s not what I’m elected to do.”
Walker’s refusal to comment on federal immigration issues comes two months after he told reporters he supported Trump’s call for military training facilities along the border and sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Black Earth, welcoming Trump’s “aggressive actions to secure our nation’s southern border.”
“I applaud @POTUS for taking on illegal drugs, human trafficking, illegal firearms, and all the problems we see on our southern border,” Walker tweeted at the time.
“National security is a fundamental responsibility of our government.”
But last week, Walker declined to comment on the Trump administration policy of criminally prosecuting immigrants and asylum seekers entering the country illegally, which resulted in more than 2,000 children being separated from their parents, causing a national uproar.
Trump has since signed an executive order ensuring families are detained together.
Walker declined to comment the same day he sent a dozen Wisconsin National Guard troops to assist the Arizona National Guard. Walker emphasized both last week and Monday the Wisconsin Guard members are not involved in law enforcement operations.
‘Striking’ response on immigration
Marquette Law School Poll director Charles Franklin said it was “striking” how Walker has deferred on the immigration issue. But the two latest Marquette polls might offer clues as to why Walker won’t express a position.
According to the March and June polls, of those who approve of the job Walker is doing, 79 percent are Republican and 21 percent identify as something else.
Among those Republican supporters, 76 percent favor building a wall on the Mexico border, but among non-Republican supporters only 29 percent favor building a wall.
Similarly, 89 percent of his Republican supporters approve of Trump’s job performance, while only 32 percent of non-Republican supporters approve of Trump’s job performance.
“Immigration and Trump are fault lines in the Walker coalition,” Franklin said.
Walker’s own re-election campaign has published online fundraising ads encouraging supporters to “sign up if you support the National Guard defending the southern border,” along with photographs of border fencing, something former Rep. Kelda Roys, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has criticized.
“Walker’s silence in the face of children being ripped from their parents’ arms is cowardly,” Roys said.
“The fact that he is seeking to profit off the inhumane conditions at the southern border is one of the most heartless acts I have seen during my time in politics.”
Republican and Democratic governors in several other states have either pulled back guard units or said they won’t send them if called on by the president because of the president’s policies.
Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan tweeted last week after ordering four Maryland National Guard members and their helicopter away from the border: “Immigration enforcement efforts should focus on criminals, not separating innocent children from their families.”
No comment on ‘federal issue’
Walker has declined to comment on some national matters on grounds that they are a “federal issue,” including in April when he was asked about whether he agreed with former FBI director James Comey’s assessment that Trump was “morally unfit” for office.
Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, pointed to other federal issues Walker has commented on both during and after his short-lived 2015 presidential campaign, including the recent rewrite of the federal tax code, the Affordable Care Act and federal guidance on transgender bathroom policies.
“After 25 years in office, this is what you get from Election Year Scott Walker: more concern about not offending Donald Trump and his supporters than the moral offense of babies being torn from their mothers and being put in cages,” Ross said.