Thursday night's Republican debate was the most entertaining I've seen, but there was no additional light shed on the candidates' views on immigration.
The issue came up early, but both the questions and the answers were predictable. Everybody's against illegal immigration. Everybody wants better border enforcement. Everybody's against sanctuary cities and pretty young women being killed by illegal-alien felons protected by commies in San Francisco.
Trump claimed that "if it weren’t for me, you wouldn't even be talking about illegal immigration." This is Trumpishly exaggerated, of course, but if you de-Trumpize the comment, he's right – without his grabbing the issue (and then being vindicated by Kate Steinle's death shortly afterwards), the public anxiety about the issue would not be on the front burner. But when pressed on his ridiculous assertion that the Mexican government is intentionally sending criminals north (like Castro did during the Mariel boatlift, seems to be the idea), all he could offer by way of evidence is that some guys he met at the border told him so.
Jeb declared his newfound opposition to sanctuary cities – though that's hard to take seriously since he never mentioned the issue once in the 274-page book entirely devoted to immigration that he published in 2013 and reissued last year. He also lamely offered the decade-old saw that his proposed amnesty isn't really an amnesty because it's "earned legal status."
Cruz touted his sponsorship of Kate's Law to stiffen the penalty for reentry after deportation and slammed McConnell for blocking a vote on the bill. He also took a swipe at Rubio without saying his name: "I have never supported amnesty, and I led the fight against Chuck Schumer’s gang of eight amnesty legislation in the Senate."
Rubio himself made the point that non-Mexicans now make up more than half of those arrested trying to infiltrate across the southern border (that's entirely due to the Central Americans still surging across a small patch of South Texas), though he didn't say what difference that makes to enforcement. He could have gone further – the majority of new illegal immigrants aren't coming across the border at all, but are visa overstays.
All well and good. But what about something that everyone doesn't agree about. The moderators' questions overall were outstanding – actual reporters asking politicians actual questions – which is why it was so disappointing that none of them simply asked, "Do you think legal immigration should be increased, decreased, or kept the same, and why?" Ultimately, legal immigration is more important than illegal immigration, because most of the consequences are the same and there's just a lot more of it.
Because they weren't pressed, the candidates only alluded to the issue. In the jayvee debate, Santorum eloquently emphasized his support for legal immigration cuts. But in the main debate, Walker was the only one to sort-of deviate from the K Street line that we need more immigration. But even he merely said "go forward with the legal immigration system that gives priority to American working families and wages." A direct question on numbers might have usefully elicited a more specific answer.
But others alluded to actually increasing immigration, something only a small minority of Americans favors – which is why none of them dared openly say so. Again, a pointed, simple question could have clarified things. Bush said we need to "fix" illegal immigration "once and for all so that we can turn this into a driver for high sustained economic growth" – which is Bush-speak for increased levels of immigration.
Rubio was even less explicit, focusing on people "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." What most people take away from that is how unjust it is to reward illegal aliens while making legal applicants wait. But when you consider that he still supports the Gang of Eight bill's goal of doubling immigration, "they can't get in" means "legal immigration caps have to be increased."
Cruz, who has unobtrusively supported increased immigration, highlighted the problem without addressing it: "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." But how many of those 7 billion can come legally is the real issue, and he punted.
Even Trump seems to be drawn to the "legal-good, illegal-bad" evasion; he said "And I don’t mind having a big, beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally."
So we still don't have explicit statements from any of the leading candidates on one of the central policy issues of our day. The debate was better than most, but was still disappointing.