One would have hoped for better, given that the debate was in Arizona. But the Republican Presidential candidates once again squandered a chance to show how their positions on immigration could be of great assistance to the millions of American families who are struggling without jobs or with stagnant wages. Nonetheless, there were some bright spots, and hardly a stumble.
The immigration highlights were two:
- Gingrich did a very nice job of showing how getting serious about stopping illegal immigration could save taxpayers a lot of money.
- Romney came out with the most powerful promise of any candidate in the race thus far in advocating E-Verify. He said Arizona's mandatory E-Verify law is the model for the nation.
Here's what I typed as the debate went along:
ROMNEY IS FIRST TO MENTION IMMIGRATION. This is a good sign because it is in answer to a question that wasn't about immigration.
CNN moderator John King asked Romney what he meant earlier this month when he said he was "severely conservative" as governor of Massachusetts. Romney responded that he meant he was strict and proceeded to rattle off a number of accomplishments that he considered to represent strict conservatism. In the middle of it, he brought up immigration:
I enabled our state police to enforce illegal immigration laws so that people could be taken out of our state that were here illegally.
Romney got a lot of applause with that one.
GINGRICH JUST A LITTLE LATER PUTS HIS IMMIGRATION MARKER DOWN in an answer that is about modernizing government. This is also very good in that the question wasn't about immigration but he is using immigration as an example of unnecessary costs to taxpayers because of government incompetence.
It is utterly stupid to say the United States government can't control the border (applause). It's a failure of will. It's a failure of enforcement. . . . Let's assume that you could tomorrow morning have a president who wanted to work with your governor. (applause) Instead of suing Arizona, helped Arizona, actually helped Arizona. What's the fiscal reality three years from now -- in your emergency room, in your schools, in your prisons -- of controlling the border? it's a lot less expensive. You just took a major step towards a less expensive future.
No other immigration references until Gary Lott from Kingman, Arizona is given the microphone in the audience and complains about Arizona being under attack for just wanting to secure its border. He asks what the candidates would do to protect the American people.
Moderator King is prepared to challenge the concept of border fencing. He cites a government study that the cost will be $3 million per mile and asks Paul if that would be money well-spent.
Paul says the answer on the border is more Homeland Security people on the border to make it easier for workers and consumers to come to the U.S. legally. And he calls for an end to benefits to illegal aliens which just encourages more illegal behavior.
Having helped Paul speak against border fencing, Moderator King then turns to Gingrich and notes that Texas Gov. Perry is a supporter of Gingrich and in the audience and that Perry has said that when you build 30-foot walls, you create a big business for 35-foot ladders. King then notes that Gingrich has signed a pledge to build a double fence. "Why is Gov. Perry wrong?" he asks.
Gingrich's response is a great example of his skill on the stump.
He's not wrong. They'd have to have two 35-foot ladders because it's a double fence.
It seemed like the crowd picked up on it even though it may not have been explained fully. But Gingrich got to the point that a single fence indeed has the problems of being too easy to get over. Even Gingrich's double fence isn't enough. Most of us who have advocated fencing over the decades have called for a triple fence that has two roads for Border Patrol, one between fences one and two and another road between fences two and three. The idea is to have surveillance that can alert the Border Patrol and have them stationed well enough to be able to get to the fencing before illegal aliens can get over that third fence.
Gingrich brags about helping former Rep. Duncan Hunter pass the first fence bill that erected fencing in California.
It worked. It worked dramatically. Duncan and I would be glad to testify. He's former chairman of the national -- of the Defense Committee -- how much it worked.
However, it stopped. It stopped in part because there was a wetlands. It turned out none of the illegal immigrants cared about wetlands policy. Then you had to go and build around the wetlands, which we did. The further we have gone with the fence, the fewer the people have broken into California.
He repeated his pledge to "finish the job by January 2014" by waiving all rules that stand in its way.
Moderator King turns to Romney now and tries to get him to commit to aggressively seeking out millions of illegal aliens to arrest and deport them.
Romney does a wonderful pivot and focuses on what most Border Patrol leaders have long said and that is you can't control the border without turning off the jobs magnet.
I think you see a model in Arizona. They passed a law here that says -- that says that people who come here and try and find work, that the employer is required to look them up on e- verify. This e-verify system allows employers in Arizona to know who's here legally and who's not here legally. And as a result of e-verify being put in place, the number of people in Arizona that are here illegally has dropped by some 14 percent, where the national average has only gone down 7 percent.
So going back to the question that was asked, the right course for America is to drop these lawsuits against Arizona and other states that are trying to do the job Barack Obama isn't doing. And I will drop those lawsuits on day one. I'll also complete the fence. I'll make sure we have enough border patrol agents to secure the fence.
And I will make sure we have an E-Verify system and require employers to check the documents of workers, and to check E- Verify. And if an employer hires someone that has not gone through E- Verify, they're going to get sanctioned just like they do for not paying their taxes. You do that, and just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration. It's time we finally did it.
Moderator King turns to Santorum and tosses him a tough one: He cites a statistic about a high percentage of household workers being illegal. I'm not sure if he got that stated right. Need to check on that one. But he wants to know if to be fair Santorum will make the homeowner play by the same rules as the business owner.
I'm not going to require the homeowner to do E-Verify. I think that's one step too far.
That was a stumble. H.R. 2885 that passed the House Judiciary Committee does require employers of even one worker to use E-Verify after two years. If you are going to get most illegal aliens out of the underground economy, you have to do that. I don't fault Santorum very much on his answer. He simply was asked a question that he hadn't thought about. At least, that is the way it looked to me.
Santorum went on to say he was in favor of allowing local law enforcement to do more of what Sheriff Joe in Arizona has been doing to detain illegal aliens and turn them over for deportation.
Moderator King suggests that these candidates are going to have a hard time being so tough on illegal immigration while Latinos are the fastest growing part of the population. He says some Republicans say that is going to be a problem. He cites Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) as saying that some of the conservatives' rhetoric has been "harsh and intolerable."
He throws that one at Gingrich who again handles it about right by saying that he isn't aware of anybody who has made harsh and intolerable comments so can't really respond. He says that he is sure that somebody somewhere has but sort of shrugs as if to say what does that really have to do with anything. Interestingly, he once again admits to voting for the Reagan amnesty compromise in 1986 but says that he and everybody else who voted for it got "short-changed" because all that happened was the amnesty and none of the enforcement.
ROY BECK is the CEO & Founder of NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Feb 24th 2012 @ 9:17am EST