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.