The shortcomings of the debate format really hampered useful discussion of immigration. Instead of just asking “What would you do about illegal immigration?” and giving each candidate a chance to say something, there was a question from the audience about illegal-alien access to welfare, with mediocre follow-ups from moderator John King. And it would have been nice to also ask, “What changes, if any, would you make to legal immigration?” and give everybody a chance to respond; that would have been especially useful given the obvious connection between 9 percent unemployment and the fact that we’re still importing maybe as many as 100,000 working-age legal immigrants and foreign workers each month.
Within those limits, Gingrich gave the best immigration answer, as hard as it is to believe. He forcefully rejected the “catastrophic alternatives” premise of King’s question — a choice between amnesty or mass expulsion. If he’d had more time he probably would have given a bad answer about specifics — given the nature of his earlier statements on immigration — but saved from his own loquacity, he made the most important point of any of the respondents.
Santorum started off the answers with the tired “I’m the son of a legal immigrant” genuflection, and then focused on the audience member’s question on welfare. Too many of the moderator’s follow-up questions were also about government benefits for illegal aliens, offering, for instance, the “catastrophic alternative” of choosing between emergency room treatment for the five-year-old child of an illegal immigrant or national bankruptcy.
Herman Cain at least tried to offer a framework for thinking about illegal immigration, breaking the problem into four parts: border security, enforce existing laws (I guess that means interior enforcement), “cleaning up the bureaucracy” to “promote the path to citizenship” followed by the legal immigrant who posed the question (I’m not sure what that means), and allowing the states to help enforce immigration laws.
Pawlenty pointed out the fact that he was the only one there to have any substantive accomplishments on immigration, having sent Minnesota National Guard units to help the Border Patrol. (And he didn’t even get around to mentioning his executive order requiring state contractors to use E-Verify and his participation in the 287g program to train police in immigration law.)
Romney and Bachmann were the only ones who didn’t get a chance to say anything about immigration, which is too bad in the case of Bachmann since she’s considered to be the most hawkish on immigration. (See Numbers USA’s detailed grid of the various candidates.)
Most of Ron Paul’s answer was borderline incoherent, but he gave the biggest applause line among the immigration responses: “We should think about protecting our borders rather than the borders between Iraq and Afghanistan.” I think that suggests the shape of a conservative opposition to the ongoing wars abroad — we are neglecting the common defense while playing nursemaid to foreigners who have proven themselves unworthy of the bones of a single Pennsylvania Guardsman.
Putting aside the bad format of the debate, the questions and answers suggested how ill-informed even policymakers and journalists are about the most elementary parts of the immigration debate: John King referred to “an estimated 20 million illegal immigrants,” when no one who’s payed even the slightest attention to this issue comes up with such an estimate; federal law (the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, EMTALA) requires emergency rooms to treat any and all comers, regardless of legal status or ability to pay, and I’ve never heard anyone, anywhere, propose repealing it; Pawlenty was mistaken in saying judges imposed birthright citizenship for the children of illegals when, in fact, there has never been a court case on the subject.
The one thing we can say for sure based on the immigration exchange last night is that strong support for state efforts to help enforce immigration law will likely be the main immigration-related issue in the primary and the general election campaigns.