Simi Valley Candidate Debate Reveals Most Republicans Still Squishy About Immigration

Published on September 8th, 2011

From the Republican presidential candidates who spoke at last night's debate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney indicated (very slightly) that he had the greatest understanding of the relationship between too much immigration and too few American jobs. That’s encouraging because from the gaggle of other candidates (Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Herman Cain), Romney may have the best chance of being elected.

Immigration was by no means the debate’s focal point. Slightly more than an hour passed before moderators mentioned immigration and the segment lasted only a little more than ten minutes. The Californians for Population Stabilization ad that asked about the folly of bringing in more legal immigrants during a period of relentlessly high unemployment segued into the immigration discussion.

Except for Romney, Bachmann, who like Romney supports building a border fence and Cain, who wants empower states to enforce immigration laws, the others regurgitated the same tedious boilerplate about the need for more border security (Perry), how mass deportation is impossible (Gingrich) and fence building ineffective (Paul). Santorum and Huntsman cloyingly pointed to family members who are immigrants while Gingrich call for a “humane” approach. Boring!

Although it’s not saying much, Romney was the most forceful and impressive. Referring to a conversation he had with border patrol agents, Romney said that the jobs magnet, sanctuary cities and “giving tuition breaks to kids of illegal aliens,” all of which act as a lure, must be ended. Romney, despite being pressured by the moderator to give a different answer, said he favored putting a fence along all the 2,600 miles along the Mexico-U.S. border.

Nevertheless, Romney had plenty of room for improvement. For example, he could have (and should have) come out in favor of mandatory E-Verify that would have given the pending legislation a boost. I’ll add that Romney was the smoothest, too—a factor that plays heavily in electability.

Bachmann made the excellent point that U.S. immigration law worked effectively during the 1950s. Said Bachmann: “But one thing that we do know, our immigration law worked beautifully back in the 1950s, up until the early 1960s, when people had to demonstrate that they had money in their pocket, they had no contagious diseases, they weren't a felon. They had to agree to learn to speak the English language, they had to learn American history and the Constitution. And the one thing they had to promise is that they would not become a burden on the American taxpayer.”

What Bachmann left unsaid is that during the 1950s, the United States had a strong, ongoing internal enforcement policy that resulted in tens of thousands of deportations.

On the whole I got the impression that most of the candidates, save Bachmann, would have preferred not to get into any sustained exchanges about immigration. Maybe they were intimidated into political correctness by Telemundo anchor Jose Diaz-Balart who posed the immigration questions. Diaz-Balart, whose brother Mario is a U.S. Congressmen, is a well known amnesty advocate.

Whoever ultimately wins the Republican nomination will have to clearly and aggressively define his differences about immigration policy from those of President Obama. Given what we know the president’s well documented immigration advocacy—including his recent back door amnesty—that shouldn’t be hard. But the Republicans aren’t always up to the challenge.

Read the entire debate transcript here.

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