The GOP Debate Took a Wrong Turn on Immigration

"Being soft on illegals" was the attack of choice, and the demagoguery at Tuesday's forum would have embarrassed past candidates

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In 2012, President Obama will run at the top of the Democratic ticket, so for the time being, the Republicans are alone in showing the nation their pathologies in a series of strange televised encounters that we agree to call debates. Tuesday night's installment had Anderson Cooper guest starring as moderator, and reached its low point when the subject turned to illegal immigration.

"Governor Perry, in the last debate, Governor Romney pointed out that Texas has one of the highest rates of uninsured children in the country, over one million kids," Cooper stated. "You did not get an opportunity to respond to that. What do you say?" Perry's answer was fantastically terrible. "Well, we've got one of the finest health care systems in the world in Texas," Perry said. "As a matter of fact, the Houston, Texas, Medical Center, there's more doctors and nurses that go to work there every morning than any other place in America." Apparently, quality is measured by total doctors on the premises. (Wait until he finds out about medical conventions.)

Perry went on to explain that "the idea that you can't have access to health care, some of the finest health care in the world -- but we have a 1,200-mile border with Mexico, and the fact is we have a huge number of illegals that are coming into this country. And they're coming into this country because the federal government has failed to secure that border."

That's when he decided to slip in his prepared attack. "They're coming here because there is a magnet. And the magnet is called jobs. And those people that hire illegals ought to be penalized," Perry said. "And Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you're strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy."

It should be said that there is a Republican who deserves mockery for his hypocrisy on immigration. Meet Lou Dobbs, whose embarrassment must be epic. But Mitt Romney? Here are the facts: "The Boston Globe first reported in December 2006 that Mr. Romney was employing a lawn care company that regularly hired illegal immigrants. He said he had dismissed an illegal immigrant he discovered working on his property. But he continued to use the same lawn company, and a year later The Globe reported that the company had once again employed illegal immigrants for lawn care. The day of the second Globe report, Mr. Romney fired the company." This is supposed to be a factor in a race for the presidency? Nonsense.

The irony is that as a lifelong Texan, and a rich one for some time now, the notion that Perry has never so much as done business with anyone who employs illegal immigrants is laughable. Does he ever eat out? Or take taxis? Does he verify the legal status of every house cleaner, gardener, plumber, locksmith and carpenter who sets foot on his property? How will his donors feel about the notion that anyone who has employed an illegal immigrant deserves censure?

Here's how Romney came back at Perry. "When I was governor, I took the action of empowering our state police to enforce immigration laws," he said. "When you were governor, you said, I don't want to build a fence. You put in place a magnet. You talked about magnets. You put in place a magnet to draw illegals into the state, which was giving $100,000 of tuition credit to illegals that come into this country, and then you have states -- the big states of illegal immigrants are California and Florida. Over the last 10 years, they've had no increase in illegal immigration.Texas has had 60 percent increase in illegal immigrants in Texas. If there's someone who has a record as governor with regards to illegal immigration that doesn't stand up to muster, it's you."

This too is nonsense.

When it comes to illegal immigration, jobs are the only "magnet" that matters. Whatever one thinks of in-state tuition for illegal immigrant kids who grew up in Texas for a substantial chunk of their childhoods, the notion that significant numbers of people sneaked across the border because they hoped that years later their kids could get a price break at UT defies common sense.

At this point in the debate, attention turned to Herman Cain. Said the moderator:

Obviously, over the weekend, you got a lot of headlines by saying you would have an electrified fence. You then later said it was a joke. And then last night, you said, "It might be electrified. I'm not walking away from that. I just don't want to offend anyone." So would you build an entire fence along the entire border, and would you have it be electrified?

And Cain dodged the question! That is to say, the possible frontrunner in the Republican field thinks it is in his strategic interests to maintain ambiguity about whether or not he would electrify a fence along the Mexican border, one that would inevitably shock some Mexicans to death.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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