The GOP Debate Took a Wrong Turn on Immigration

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"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.

For committing a misdemeanor.

Michele Bachmann got to weigh in soon after. "I think the person who really has a problem with illegal immigration in the country is President Obama," she said. "It's his uncle and his aunt who are illegal aliens... who've been allowed to stay in this country, despite the fact that they're illegal."

Tallying illegal immigrant relatives is one method for assessing Obama's record. Here's another metric. "The Obama administration deported a record number of illegal immigrants for the third straight year, according to figures released Tuesday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement," the Los Angeles Times reported this week. "Of the 396,906 deportations from October 2010 through September of this year, more than half were illegal immigrants with felony or misdemeanor convictions, a percentage that has increased steadily since the end of the George W. Bush administration."

And new arrivals?

"American census figures analyzed by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center also show that the illegal Mexican population in the United States has shrunk and that fewer than 100,000 illegal border-crossers and visa-violators from Mexico settled in the United States in 2010, down from about 525,000 annually from 2000 to 2004," the New York Times reports. "Although some advocates for more limited immigration argue that the Pew studies offer estimates that do not include short-term migrants, most experts agree that far fewer illegal immigrants have been arriving in recent years." This shouldn't be surprising given the combination of high unemployment and a housing construction industry that is among the hardest hit by the recession.

Next Perry and Bachmann sparred about whether the border would be better guarded by a double wall or "boots on the ground" and surveillance drones in the sky. Romney then remembered the general election and decided to interject. "Let's step back. I think it's important for us as Republicans on this stage to say something which hasn't been said. And that is I think every single person here loves legal immigration. We respect people who come here legally," he said. "And the reason we're so animated about stopping illegal immigration is there are 4.5 million people who want to come here who are in line legally, we want that to happen in an orderly and legal process." If you believe that, you haven't been paying attention -- unless I missed the Republicans on stage last night animatedly insisting over the last couple decades that we need to expedite the process of coming here legally, clearing away the bureaucratic hurdles so that the constantly invoked 4.5 million "folks in line" could get here faster.

Would any of the candidates care to pledge that if elected they'll triple the speed at which new immigrants are processed and admitted?

When Ron Paul's turn came, he suggested that America's schools should stop educating the children of illegal immigrants, and that we wouldn't even be talking about the illegal immigration issue if the economy was better. Funny, I recall a lot of debate about illegal immigration back when the economy was better.

Without commenting on the right answer when it comes to immigration policy -- personally I'm against guest worker programs, and for much higher levels of legal immigration; systematically deporting illegal immigrant criminals; a Gary Johnson-style amnesty for everyone else; and finishing most of the wall that already exists so that migrants are disincentivized rather than incentivized to cross through the most dangerous parts of the desert -- contrast last night's performances with rhetoricians past, if only to prove that the subject can be discussed intelligently, even among people who disagree.

Here are Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush debating in 1980:



Here's another Reagan clip:



If you're looking for an intelligent, well-spoken restrictionist, I give you Heather MacDonald:

 

Here's a debate between libertarian Nick Gillespie and restrictionist Mickey Kaus. The latter makes his points with integrity.

The next clip is Rudy Giuliani talking at the Kennedy School of Government:



And finally, here's two-term border state Governor Gary Johnson, who wasn't permitted to participate:



Instead we've got Mitt Romney and Rick Perry using the issue like demagogues appealing to the worst impulses of the Republican electorate, Herman Cain showing there's a shockingly ugly side beneath his likable veneer, and the border governor who has never demonized illegal immigrants shut out of the debate by CNN. I interacted with a fair number of illegal immigrants growing up in Southern California and reporting in the Inland Empire. It's true that they broke the law to enter the country. But the vast majority of them behaved with a lot more integrity and personal dignity than the majority of candidates on the Republican debate stage last night.

Image credit: Reuters
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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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