Scott Walker backs pathway to citizenship at private dinner

Washington CNN  — 

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker endorsed a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants during a private dinner with Republican leaders in New Hampshire two weeks ago, backing away from the more hard-line position he has staked out in public and obscuring where he stands on the hot-button issue.

At a March 13 dinner at the Copper Door Restaurant in Bedford organized by New Hampshire GOP Chairwoman Jennifer Horn, Walker, a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, was asked how he would address the problem of roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.

After he declared that securing the United States border with Mexico is “our first priority,” Walker said that undocumented immigrants now residing in the country could “secure their citizenship” as long as they “get in the back of line” and wait like anyone else applying for citizenship.

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The comments, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, were relayed to CNN by a Republican briefed on the dinner who did not want to be identified.

During a question-and-answer session, Walker said that undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should not be deported, the Republican source said.

Though Walker once supported a path to citizenship as part of comprehensive immigration overhaul, his New Hampshire comments are at odds with more recent assurances that he opposes what he calls “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. Walker admitted in a Fox News interview earlier this month that he changed his position on the issue.

The newly-reported comments are also in conflict with the sentiments of many conservatives who hold sway in Republican primaries and fiercely oppose the idea of granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants.

Walker’s remarks were reported Thursday by the Wall Street Journal, citing two attendees who confirmed the comments on-the-record. One Republican at the dinner, Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield, told the Journal that Walker said illegal immigrants should “get to the back of the line for citizenship.”

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But a spokeswoman for Walker’s likely campaign, Kirsten Kukowski, strongly disputed the account, which comes as Walker prepares to inspect the U.S.-Mexico border on Friday alongside Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has staked out a hard-line position on immigration issues.

“Gov. Walker has been very clear that he does not support amnesty and believes that border security must be established and the rule of law must be followed,” Kukowski said. “His position has not changed, he does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants, and this story line is false.”

She referred reporters to Horn, the New Hampshire GOP Chair. Horn told the Associated Press in an interview Thursday that Walker “very clearly identified he was advocating a path for legal status but not citizenship.”

But according to the Republican who spoke to CNN, Walker backed the idea of citizenship, saying that illegal immigrants “need to be moved into a system where they eventually get their citizenship without being given preferential treatment.”

On the same day as the Bedford dinner, Walker met with reporters and editors of the New Hampshire Union Leader. During this sit-down, the governor came “so close to the line” of backing a pathway to citizenship, the paper’s executive editor Trent Spiner told CNN on Friday.

Walker discussed the issue of immigration for about 15 minutes, Spiner said, including his belief that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country and obtain legal status. But he stopped just short of saying he backed a pathway to citizenship for illegal workers.

“You have people that have to go in and get into the normal immigration system,” Walker said, according to a partial transcript of the interview that the Union Leader provided to CNN. “People who want to work will go through that process.”

The transcript shows Walker saying that he doesn’t think “absolute amnesty” is a viable solution, but that he wants to see illegal workers eventually obtain legal status.

“There’s those who want to have absolute amnesty, which I don’t think works because we’re a nation of immigrants but we’re also a nation of laws,” he said. “You put the onus on a workable e-verify system, and I think that takes care of it.”

CNN’s MJ Lee contributed to this story.