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Scott Walker wasn’t lying on immigration. He just hoped GOP voters misunderstood him.

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In public, Scott Walker says he doesn't support "amnesty." In private — at least at one private dinner in New Hampshire (according to the Wall Street Journal) — Scott Walker said unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to, eventually, apply for citizenship.

Mr. Walker said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to "eventually get their citizenship without being given preferential treatment" ahead of people already in line to obtain citizenship.

"He said no to citizenship now, but later they could get it," said Bill Greiner, an owner of the Copper Door restaurant. Ken Merrifield, mayor of Franklin, N.H., who also attended, said Mr. Walker proposed that illegal immigrants should "get to the back of the line for citizenship" but not be deported.

So is Scott Walker lying to someone? The Journal article says his private comments are "at odds" with his public ones. But he wasn't actually contradicting himself at the time. The controversy didn't reveal a flip-flop — but it might have created one.

"Amnesty" doesn't mean anything on its own

No one actually says they support "amnesty." Instead, politicians tend to use "amnesty" to describe whatever immigration policy they don't like. So using the word doesn't tell you much about a politician's stance.

People often assume "opposing amnesty" means opposing any opportunity for unauthorized immigrants to get citizenship, or even any form of legal status. And for many politicians and voters, it does mean that.

For some Republicans, though, "amnesty" means creating a new kind of legal status for formerly unauthorized immigrants — but they'd be totally okay with tweaking existing rules so that unauthorized immigrants who'd otherwise be able to get legal status now could do it, and could apply for citizenship from there. During the 2013 debate over the Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill, Republicans like Marco Rubio (who's since distanced himself from the bill) tried to argue that the real "amnesty" is the immigration system we have now, where it's easy for people to live in the shadows.

It's not exactly clear what Walker means when he says he opposes "amnesty." What is clear is that even in public, he hadn't opposed the idea that unauthorized immigrants should eventually get citizenship. Here's what he said during the interview earlier this month in which he famously told Fox News's Chris Wallace that his "view had changed" and he no longer supported comprehensive immigration reform:

WALLACE: The question was, can you envision a world where if these people paid a penalty, that they would have a path to citizenship? And you said, sure, that makes sense.

WALKER: I believe there's a way that you can do that. First and foremost, you've got to secure that border or none of these plans make any sense.

Did the controversy end up pushing Walker to the right?

So Walker was consistent from the perspective of policy. But from the perspective of politics, he was definitely doing his best to give GOP voters the impression that he's tough on immigration. Walker may not have meant "no chance for citizenship" when he said "no amnesty," but that's how voters and the media were going to take it — as this flap over his New Hampshire comments shows.

This is the problem that Walker, and any potential GOP nominee whose position on immigration doesn't already define him (like Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz), has to face for the next several months. As I wrote about the GOP field at the beginning of this year:

Collectively, they're better off not saying anything about immigration that's specific enough to be a problem for them later on. But individually, there's a huge short-term benefit for the first candidate who can turn immigration to his advantage in the primary — and candidates will be under tremendous pressure from activists on both sides of the issue to take a stand.

Scott Walker was trying to stay in the first category. But it seems like the controversy over his comments at the dinner might have tipped him into the second. A spokesperson, disputing the Wall Street Journal article, said directly that Walker "does not support citizenship for illegal immigrants" — which, if it's an accurate reflection of his position, shuts the door he was deliberately leaving open only a few weeks ago.

That doesn't bode well for the GOP field in 2015 and 2016. If Walker does end up moving to the right on immigration in response to a controversy over his private comments, it makes it much more likely the GOP will end up hitting the tipping point — where whoever wins the nomination will have had to commit to an immigration position that dooms Latino support for him in the general election.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect the statement from Walker's spokesperson.

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