Defining Ideas

Immigration And The GOP

Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Image credit: 
Gage Skidmore

At the first GOP presidential debate, held in Cleveland, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News focused the night’s first question on the topic of immigration. Wallace noted that the Republican hopefuls had a variety of different approaches to immigration reform, which in itself reflects the diversity of thought and competition of ideas in the Republican field this time around. Let’s take a look at how the candidates distinguished themselves on immigration reform.

While many of the candidates mentioned immigration, only a few of them were willing to give details. The debate format allowed for answers of 60 seconds, so it is impressive that any substance at all was offered up. A glib response that failed to register for me was something like, “When I am president, I will secure the border and enforce the law.” Like what, exactly? This chart shows which specific reform and positions were mentioned. To be clear, this is not a full accounting of their platforms, rather what was mentioned during the debates on Thursday, August 6, 2015:

 

Sen.
Rubio

Gov.
Bush

Sen.
Cruz

Mr.
Trump

Gov.
Walker

Gov.
Perry

Sen.
Santorum

Gov.
Gilmore

 

Oppose amnesty

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

 

6

Build border fence / wall

x

   

x

 

x

x

 

4

Legal immigration is good

x

 

x

 

x

   

 

3

E-verify

x

x

         

 

2

Deal with Overstays

x

x

         

 

2

Eliminate sanctuary cities

 

x

x

 

 

 

 

 

2

Has immigrant relatives

x

 

x

       

 

2

Visited the border

 

   

x

x

   

 

2

Oppose Wedge Issue

x

x

         

 

2

Earned legal status

 

x

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

Entry-exit tracking system

x

           

 

1

Secure border first

 

       

x

 

 

1

Rescind Obama's action

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

x

1

 

7

6

4

3

3

3

2

1

 

 

The candidates who spoke more than once and spoke the most words about immigration were Senator Rick Santorum and Governor Jeb Bush. However, Santorum spoke anecdotally and offered the least policy substance. Bush checked off numerous specifics and was the most comfortable with details, rivaled only by Senator Marco Rubio’s many policy points. For example, only Rubio and Bush mentioned E-verify. Only Rubio and Bush mentioned the immigrants who overstay visa terms, which is a source of more illegal immigration than crossing the border. And only Rubio and Bush offered political analysis on how immigration has been used as a wedge issue for decades.

The most nuanced comments were given by Governor Rick Perry, who delivered the most commanding summary of how to secure the border, with an emphasis on technology and manpower, not just superficial rhetoric about building a wall. Perry did not check off a list of other aspects of immigration reform, but had the deepest answer on border security.

The modern debate format allows candidates to offer platitudes in place of substance; however this cycle’s first debate showed that individuals can signal clearly their policy contrasts, if they have the courage. Perhaps a smaller stage would generate longer and more meaningful discussions of policy, but verbiage and substance are not necessarily coordinated. Voters who want more substance will probably need to look to written plans put out by the campaigns.

So what was missing? In this debate, many of the immigration talking points of 2012, 2008, and before were absent. Nobody talked about the need for “comprehensive” legislation, though Bush did mention a comprehensive strategy and Cruz did critique the failed Gang-of-Eight Senate bill. We can hope this signals a recognition that Obama’s insistence on comprehensive legislation on immigration has yielded nothing but partisan point-scoring, and also signals a shift toward pragmatic, incremental reform. Still, process was not really a topic mentioned by anyone—certainly the words incremental, piecemeal, and step-by-step were not uttered at all. Likewise, amnesty was not the centerpiece of the argument, as it has been in past debates. The word was mentioned, but never defined. Better yet, not a single candidate uttered the word “deport.”

In the end, citizens who watched the debate learned a great deal about immigration. They learned that most illegal immigrants are no longer originating in Mexico, but in Central American nations (HT Marco Rubio). They learned that one million migrants come to the U.S. legally every year, a testament to our generosity (HT again to Rubio). Visa overstays are as much a problem as a porous border (HT Jeb Bush). They learned that the border is 1,933 miles long (HT Rick Perry). And they got a hint of a reform that is neither deportation nor citizenship, but earned legal status (HT again to Bush).

Governor Jeb Bush was asked to talk first because he released a substantive reform plan this week. Wallace asked if Bush stood by his earlier comments in support of the incentives driving immigrants to want to come to the United States. (Transcripts of the debate remarks are based on text from WashingtonPost.com.)

BUSH: I do. I believe that the great majority of people coming here illegally have no other option. They want to provide for their family. But we need to control our border. It’s not—it’s our responsibility to pick and choose who comes in. So I—I’ve written a book about this and yet this week, I did come up with a comprehensive strategy that—that really mirrored what we said in the book, which is that we need to deal with E-Verify, we need to deal with people that come with a legal visa and overstay. We need to be much more strategic on how we deal with border enforcement, border security. We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country. It is ridiculous and tragic—(APPLAUSE)—that people are dying because of the fact that—that local governments are not following the federal law. There’s much to do. And I think rather than talking about this as a wedge issue, which Barack Obama has done now for six long years, the next president—and I hope to be that president—will fix this once and for all so that we can turn this into a driver for high sustained economic growth. And there should be a path to earned legal status for those that are here. Not amnesty. Earned legal status, which means you pay a fine and do many things over an extended period of time.

TRUMP: So, if it weren’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about illegal immigration, Chris. You wouldn’t even be talking about it. (APPLAUSE) This was not a subject that was on anybody’s mind until I brought it up at my announcement. And I said, “Mexico is sending.” Except the reporters, because they’re a very dishonest lot, generally speaking, in the world of politics, they didn’t cover my statement the way I said it. The fact is, since then, many killings, murders, crime, drugs pouring across the border, are money going out and the drugs coming in. And I said we need to build a wall, and it has to be built quickly. And I don’t mind having a big beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally. But we need, Jeb, to build a wall, we need to keep illegals out. (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) Border Patrol, I was at the border last week. Border Patrol, people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what’s happening. Because our leaders are stupid. Our politicians are stupid. And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them. Why should they when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what is happening whether you like it or not.

KASICH: But the point is that we all have solutions. Mr. Trump is touching a nerve because people want the wall to be built. They want to see an end to illegal immigration. They want to see it, and we all do. But we all have different ways of getting there. And you’re going to hear from all of us tonight about what our ideas are.

RUBIO: Let me set the record straight on a couple of things. The first is, the evidence is now clear that the majority of people coming across the border are not from Mexico. They’re coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras. Those countries are the source of the people that are now coming in its majority. I also believe we need a fence. The problem is if El Chapo builds a tunnel under the fence, we have to be able to deal with that too. And that’s why you need an E-verify system and you need an entry-exit tracking system and all sorts of other things to prevent illegal immigration. But I agree with what Governor Kasich just said. People are frustrated. This is the most generous country in the world when it comes to immigration. There are a million people a year who legally immigrate to the United States, and people feel like we’re being taken advantage of. We feel like despite our generosity, we’re being taken advantage of. And let me tell you who never gets talked about in these debates. The people that call my office, who have been waiting for 15 years to come to the United States. And they’ve paid their fees, and they hired a lawyer, and they can’t get in. And they’re wondering, maybe they should come illegally. (APPLAUSE) And so these are important issues, and we should address it. It’s a serious problem that needs to be addressed, and otherwise we’re going to keep talking about this for the next 30 years, like we have for the last 30 years.

WALKER: I acknowledged [changing my stance from support to opposition of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship]. I said I actually listened to the American people. And I think people across America want a leader who’s actually going to listen to them. I talked to border state governors and other elected officials. I look at how this president, particularly through last November, messed up the immigration system in this country. Most importantly, I listened to the people of America. I believe we need to secure the border. I’ve been to the border with Governor Abbott in Texas and others, seeing the problems that they have there. There is international criminal organizations penetrating our southern based borders, and we need to do something about it. Secure the border, enforce the law, no amnesty, and go forward with the legal immigration system that gives priority to American working families and wages.

CRUZ: Chris, absolutely yes. And not only will I support [defunding sanctuary cities for violating federal law]—(APPLAUSE)—I have authored Kate’s law in the United States Senate and filed that legislation. I tried to get the Senate to vote to pass Kate’s law on the floor of the Senate just one week ago, and the leader of our own party blocked a vote on Kate’s law. You know, there was reference made to our leaders being stupid. It’s not a question of stupidity. It’s that they don’t want to enforce the immigration laws. That there are far too many in the Washington cartel that support amnesty. President Obama has talked about fundamentally transforming this country. There’s 7 billion people across the face of the globe, many of whom want to come to this country. If they come legally, great. But if they come illegally and they get amnesty, that is how we fundamentally change this country, and it really is striking. A majority of the candidates on this stage have supported amnesty. I have never supported amnesty, and I led the fight against Chuck Schumer’s gang of eight amnesty legislation in the Senate.

None of the other candidates – Carson, Christie, Paul, and Huckabee – were afforded an opportunity to speak on immigration in that first round. Later in the debate, however, it was brought up once by Governor Bush:

BUSH: We should be for these things to create high sustained economic growth. And frankly, fixing our immigration system and turning it into an economic driver is part of this as well. We can do this.

And immigration was again mentioned during closing statements by three of the candidates:

CRUZ: If I’m elected president, let me tell you about my first day in office. The first thing I intend to do is to rescind every illegal and unconstitutional executive action taken by Barack Obama. …I will keep my word. My father fled Cuba, and I will fight to defend liberty because my family knows what it’s like to lose it.

RUBIO: Thank you. You know, both of my parents were born into poor families on the island of Cuba. They came to America because it was the only place where people like them could have a chance. Here in this country, they never made it big, but the very purpose of their life was to give us the chance to do all the things they never could. …

BUSH: Here’s what I believe. I believe we’re at the verge of the greatest time to be alive in this world. But Washington is holding us back. How we tax, how we regulate. We’re not embracing the energy revolution in our midst, a broken immigration system that has been politicized rather than turning it into an economic driver. …

During the earlier debate among 7 GOP candidates with lower standing in current polls, immigration was also a focus of questions. Here are the responses.

SANTORUM: My father was born in Italy, and shortly after he was born my grandfather immigrated to this country. And under the laws of this country, he wasn't allowed to be with his father for seven years. Spent the first seven years of his life in Fascist Italy, under Benito Mussolini. Not a very pleasant place to be. I asked my dad after—obviously, when I found out about this. And I said, “Didn't you resent America for not letting you be with your father in those formative and very threatening years?” You know what he said to me? “America was worth the wait.” We're a country of laws, Bill. We're a country of laws, not of men, not of people who do whatever they want to do. I know we have a president who wants to do whatever he wants to do, and take his pen and his phone and just tell everybody what he thinks is best. But the reason America is a great country, the reason is because our compassion is in our laws. And when we live by those laws and we treat everybody equally under the law, that's when people feel good about being Americans. And I put forth an immigration policy that is as strong in favor of the folks who are struggling in America the most than anybody else. It's the strongest pro-worker immigration plan. It says that after 35 million people have come here over the last 20 years, almost all of whom are unskilled workers, flattening wages, creating horrible opportunity—a lack of opportunities for unskilled workers, we're going to do something about reducing the level of immigration by 25 percent. We're going to be tough at the border, we're going to be tough on all of the illegal immigrants that everybody else in this field—we're going to be different. We're going to be actually out there trying to create a better life for hard-working Americans.

PERRY: Bill, here's the interesting position on this. Americans are tired of hearing this debate -- want to go to, what are you going to do about illegal immigration? For 30 years this country has been baited with that. All the way back to when Ronald Reagan signed a piece of legislation that basically allowed for amnesty for over 4 million people, and the border is still not secure. The American people are never going to trust Washington, D.C., and for good reason. We hear all this discussion about well, I would do this, or I would do that, when the fact is, the border is still porous. Until we have a president of the United States that gets up every day and goes to the Oval Office with the intent purpose of securing that border, and there's not anybody on either one of these stages that has the experience of dealing with this as I have for over 14 years with that 1200-mile border. We have to put the personnel on that border in the right places; you have to put the strategic fencing in place; and you have to have aviation assets that fly all the way from Tijuana to El Paso to Brownsville, Texas—1,933 miles looking down 24/7, with the technology to be able to identify what individuals are doing, and ID when they are in obviously illegal activities or suspicious activities, and quick response teams come. At that particular point in time, then Americans will believe that Washington is up to a conversation to deal with the millions of people that are here illegally, but not until. If you elect me president of the United States, I will secure that southern border.

GILMORE: Well, it's not a matter of what the first executive order would be, Bill. The matter is what orders exist now that shouldn't exist? The president has done an executive order with respect to illegal immigration that is illegal. Illegal. And it creates a contempt for the law, for the rule of law. If I were the president of the United States, I would go and look at every executive order that exists right now and determine which ones want to be voided, because the president shouldn't be legislating: not through that vehicle or any other. We should be relying upon the leadership of the Congress to pass the laws.

And in his closing comments, Senator Santorum again mentioned his immigration plan:

SANTORUM: Donald Trump actually seized on it when he talked about immigration. And I think the reason he did is because immigration is sort of an example of what's broken and what's wrong in Washington, D.C. You see, you have one side, the Democrats, and with immigration, all they care about is votes. They don't care about American workers, they just care about bringing as many people in so they can get as many votes as they can. On the other side, you have so many Republicans, and what do they care about? Helping business make profits. There's nobody out there looking out for the American worker. I'm looking out for the American worker. I'm the only one on this stage who has a plan that's actually reduced—actually going to reduce immigration. Actually going to do something to help the American worker.