WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidates spent 10 minutes talking about immigration during the Wednesday debate, finally speaking out on an issue they have been doing their best to avoid for the past several months.
Although many attempted to focus narrowly on border security, presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman took a different tack, almost praising then-President Ronald Reagan for signing a mass amnesty for undocumented immigrants in 1986.
Huntsman said Reagan had recognized "a human issue, and I hope that all of us as we deal with this immigration issue will always see it as an issue that revolves around real human beings."
He said he believes undocumented immigrants should be "punished in some fashion," but believes legal immigration must be reformed to prevent people from coming into the country without documents.
"Let's not lose sight of the fact that our legal immigration system is broken," Huntsman said. "If we want to do something about attracting brain power to this country ... we need to focus as much on legal immigration as possible."
Other candidates stuck closer to the script, speaking in vague terms about the need to tighten border security rather than going into more depth about how to handle undocumented immigration.
Pressed twice on how she would deal with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, Rep. Michele Bachmann declined to answer, instead focusing on the need to secure the border first. Once the border situation is "resolved," she hinted she might take a case-by-case approach to dealing with undocumented immigrants living in the country.
"It is sequential and it depends upon where they live, how long they have been there, if they have a criminal record, all of those things need to be taken into account," she said.
Bachmann noted that she had met with voters in Miami -- the home of many Cuban Americans, who face some different immigration issues than those confronting Latinos from other countries -- who said they support tougher crackdowns on undocumented immigrants.
"The Hispanic American community wants us to stop giving taxpayer-subsidized benefits to illegal immigrants and wants us to stop giving taxpayer-subsidized benefits to their children as well," said Bachmann.
Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and arguably the Republican candidate least hawkish on immigration enforcement, said he wants to see more boots on the ground at the border, which already has its highest troop levels on record. Like most other candidates, he said the border must be protected before any other steps can be taken on immigration.
"You can secure the border, and then at that particular point in time you can have an intellectually appropriate discussion about immigration reform," Perry said. "It is not safe on that border," he added.
Mitt Romney does not mention immigration or the border on his campaign website. But he elaborated on his positions in a Sept. 2 speech to the Republican Hispanic National Assembly, saying the country must crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants and address immigration "in a way that is civil but resolute." "Our country must do a better job of securing its borders, and as president I will," Romney said. "That means completing construction of a high-tech fence and investing in adequate manpower and resources." Romney criticized other governors for signing bills that allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state college tuition, an idea that he vetoed as governor of Massachusetts. "We must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration," he said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has taken a softer tack on immigration, arguing against a border fence between the United States and Mexico. Still, he wants more border enforcement, with his campaign website calling for "decisive action to defend our sovereign border." He also spoke in support of state bills that allow in-state college tuition for undocumented students. In Texas, under a law he signed, undocumented immigrants can attend state colleges at in-state rates provided they graduated from a Texas high school and are on a path to citizenship. "I don't believe these individuals should be punished for a decision their parents made through no fault of their own," Perry said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) mentions immigration and border security issues only briefly on her campaign website, which says she "will ensure our borders are fully secured." But elsewhere she has taken a tough stance on most immigration issues, earning her the highest grade among the GPO candidates from anti-illegal immigration group Numbers USA. "Rather than repeating the mistakes of our past, I believe Congress must work to secure our nation's borders and enforce the immigration laws already in place," Bachmann says on her congressional website. "Once this is achieved, improvements to the current system can be considered."
Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah and ambassador to China, has argued for more troops along the U.S.-Mexico border, saying he would rather send the National Guard to secure the border than to fight in foreign conflicts. "Washington's repeated failure to secure our border is a national embarrassment," his campaign website reads. "For decades the American people have been promised a safe and secure border, and for decades it hasn't happened." Huntsman's first priority on immigration, "before any immigration reforms are even considered," is to enhance border security, the site says.
Herman Cain made news in June when he said he wanted to build a Great Wall-style fence along the United States' southern border, adding jokingly that he would also like a moat with alligators. "Now, my fence might be part Great Wall and part electrical technology," said the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. "It will be a 20-foot wall, barbed wire, electrified on the top, and on this side of the fence, I'll have that moat that President Obama talked about. And I would put those alligators in that moat." Cain is one of only two GOP candidate (the other is Ron Paul) with a full campaign website section on immigration, touting his support for tougher enforcement of border and immigration laws.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) does not mention immigration or border security on his campaign website. But he has been critical of other candidates, specifically Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for being lax on immigration issues. "We know unfortunately the history of governors in Texas on the issue of immigration," Santorum said at a campaign appearance in August. "I understand being governor of Texas is a tough thing. But you've got to stand up and defend. Being a senator from Pennsylvania is a tough thing. But you've got to stand up and defend your record." As a senator, Santorum voted to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich has said he supports piecemeal immigration reform, arguing against a major comprehensive bill that would grant legal status to some while also increasing enforcement. Instead, he said in May that the government should look for alternatives for dealing with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. "Because I think we are going to want to find some way to deal with the people who are here -- to distinguish between those who have no ties to the United States, and therefore you can deport them at minimum human cost, and those who, in fact, may have earned the right to become legal, but not citizens," Gingrich said. On his campaign website, the only mention of immigration or the border comes in a national security section, where Gingrich vows to "secure the border to prevent terrorist organizations from sneaking agents and weapons into the United States."
Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas congressman and repeat presidential candidate, argues against birthright citizenship on his campaign website, which is one of only two belonging to GOP candidates that devotes a full section to immigration policy. "As long as illegal immigrants know their children born here will be granted U.S. citizenship, we'll never be able to control our immigration problem," his website says. Paul also supports tougher border enforcement and an end to the welfare state, which he believes is a draw for undocumented immigrants to come to the United States.