By Gabriel Debenedetti
Scott Walker was definitive when asked about his position on illegal immigration earlier this month: "We need to secure the border. I think we need to enforce the legal system. I'm not for amnesty," he told ABC News. "I'm not an advocate of the plans that have been pushed here in Washington."
But the likely presidential candidate apparently stood on another side of that debate as the Milwaukee County Executive in 2006. That year, he signed a resolution calling on Congress to pass the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, a bill authored by John McCain and Teddy Kennedy that was denounced at the time by conservatives as "amnesty" -- and remains anathema to party activists.
Walker faces a tricky balancing act in tackling immigration policy, as he tries to square his long legislative record with his current attempt to position himself as the candidate with appeal for both major Republican donors -- many of whom vocally support comprehensive reform -- and right-wing activists who favor stricter policies.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is pictured. | AP photo
To tackle that challenge, Walker will roll out an articulated immigration stance in the coming weeks. In the meantime his staff responded to questions about his past positions by pointing to his current opposition to President Barack Obama's recent executive order.
"First, Obama's executive action should be repealed, it isn't fair to hardworking Americans and to those who have waited in line to do things the right way and only incentivizes further illegal behavior. That's why Wisconsin joined with other states to fight it in court," spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said.
"After that we need absolute security at our borders and then we can address fixing our legal immigration system and deal with those here illegally but amnesty is not the answer."
Walker is busy building his staff in the early primary states and dealing with legislative issues back in Madison. But he is also expected to unveil a slate of policy positions in the next few weeks and months.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks during the Freedom Summit, Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
The 2006 resolution embracing the McCain-Kennedy bill was sent to Walker by the Milwaukee Board of Supervisors. He signed it despite returning or vetoing numerous other matters that year. The final version of the resolution signaled support for criminalizing federal immigration law violations and increased border fencing. But it also referred to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and "full labor rights."
Walker has since denounced "amnesty," a shorthand for policies allowing undocumented immigrants a version of legal status.
The apparent contradiction in policy stances is not Walker's only inconsistency on immigration, and it illustrates one of the challenges for the swing-state governor trying to bridge the establishment and activist wings of the GOP. While Walker has aggressively wooed establishment Republican supporters who backed Mitt Romney in 2012, he has also served red meat to the base in Iowa, where he is the first 2016 contender to open a field office.
Marco Rubio is pictured. | AP Photo
Walker is fresh off a trade mission to London, where he drew fire for sidestepping questions about foreign policy at Chatham House -- a think tank for international affairs -- and for declining to articulate his views on evolution. But the scrutiny he faces reflects his newfound frontrunner status: six in 10 Iowa political insiders told POLITICO that Walker would win that state's caucuses if they were held last week.
At the same time, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has his own history of grappling with immigration policy, unlike his relative newcomer rival in the frontrunner circle.
The Wisconsin governor will likely face questions about immigration as he steps up his pre-campaign appearances in early voting states; he's scheduled to appear in Iowa and New Hampshire in March. Walker has not explicitly positioned himself alongside his party's immigration hardliners despite appearing at Iowa Rep. Steve King's summit in Des Moines in January, and he went as far as to tell POLITICO in 2013 that he supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants provided "people who are in line right now have first preference."
President Bush, center, with former President George H.W. Bush, left, and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, walk together after participating in the christening ceremony of the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush in Newport News, Va., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2006. | AP Photo
His record on providing in-state tuition to illegal immigrants is also likely to come under scrutiny. In 2001, Walker, at the time a state assemblyman, voted for a budget bill that included a provision to grant in-state tuition costs at state colleges to undocumented immigrants who graduated from Wisconsin high schools, under specific residency circumstances. However, Walker had earlier voted to remove that provision from the budget; it was reintroduced during a conference of the state senate and assembly.
The provision was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Scott McCallum. Walker himself repealed Wisconsin's in-state tuition policy, approved in 2009, when he became governor in 2011.
Walker's history of dealing with immigration issues has already drawn some attention. Last week, a National Review Online report pointed to his 2002 signing of a Milwaukee County resolution supporting "comprehensive immigration reform that will provide greater opportunity for undocumented working immigrants to obtain legal residency," though Walker's staff told the site this resolution was "stripped of references to amnesty before passage."