As eight Republican presidential hopefuls gathered at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Wednesday night, they clashed with each other on a number of topics.
At times, such as on the issue of immigration reform, many of the candidates even clashed with the very president they paid homage to with the debate location.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, appearing in his first presidential primary debate, started the discussion by calling for more “boots on the ground” in the form of “border patrol agents or National Guard troops.”
He also urged the use of “predator drones” to offer “real-time information coming down to the local and the state and the federal law enforcement.”
Perry added that once those actions were taken to “secure the border … then you can have an intellectually appropriate discussion about immigration reform.”
In addition to urging a delay on immigration reform until after substantially increasing the military presence on the border, Perry also attacked President Barack Obama.
Perry, who has quickly garnered a reputation for inflammatory rhetoric since joining the presidential race last month, suggested Obama was either uninformed or a liar.
“For the President of the United States to go to El Paso, Texas, and say that the border is safer than it’s ever been, either he has some of the poorest intel of a president in the history of this country or he was an abject liar to the American people,” Perry said. “It is not safe on that border.”
Perry’s main opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, similarly urged putting off the debate on immigration reform until after additional efforts are made “to secure that fence and to make sure that people [who] are coming over are caught.”
Romney called for a “fence” along the entire U.S.-Mexico border and an increase in border patrol agents to monitor the border.
Romney also urged greater efforts to stop “sanctuary cities,” colleges “giving tuition breaks to the kids of illegal aliens” and “employers that knowingly hire people who are here illegally.”
Other candidates similarly urged a focus on border control before dealing with immigration reform.
“To not build a border or a fence on every part of that border would be, in effect, to yield United States sovereignty not only to our nation anymore, but to yield it to another nation,” said U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). “That we cannot do.”
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum alluded to Reagan’s effort in 1986 that granted amnesty to many undocumented workers. Santorum, however, made the comment to urge a different approach today.
“But to have that discussion right now and pull the same trick that was pulled in 1986 – we said, ‘Well, we’ll promise to do this if you do that’ – no more,” Santorum argued. “We are going to secure the border first, and that’s the most important thing to do, then we’ll have the discussion afterwards.”
Other candidates also spoke out against amnesty, even while standing in the library for a president who enacted such a policy.
“We can’t talk about amnesty, we cannot give amnesty to those who have come here illegally,” Romney said. “We’ve got 4.7 million people waiting in line legally. Let those people come in first, and those that are here illegally, they shouldn’t have a special deal.”
Two candidates seemed to suggest that Reagan’s approach was correct and that a similar effort should be attempted today.
Although both urged efforts to first secure the border, they added a focus on humanely treating undocumented immigrants.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich noted that he supported Reagan’s efforts because they were also an attempt to “control the border” and change employment rules.
“I’m with President Reagan,” Gingrich added. “We ought to control the border; we ought to have a legal guest worker program.”
Although garnering large applause from the Republican audience for declaring that “[w]e should make English the official language of government,” Gingrich urged immigration reform that went beyond merely deporting everyone.
“And then find a way to deal with folks who are already here, some of whom, frankly, have been here 25 years, are married with kids, live in our local neighborhood, go to our church,” Gingrich said. “It’s got to be done in a much more humane way than thinking that to automatically deport millions of people.”
Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and former ambassador to China, echoed Gingrich’s call for a focus on the people involved.
“President Reagan, when he made his decision … saw this as a human issue,” Huntsman said. “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. Yes, they came here in an illegal fashion. And yes, they should be punished in some form or fashion.”
“We can find a solution,” Huntsman added. “If President Reagan were here, he would speak to the American people and he would lay out in hopeful, optimistic terms how we can get there, remembering full well that we’re dealing with human beings here.”
Another candidate at the debate, Congressman Ron Paul, argued against the need for a border “fence,” but did not otherwise explain his perspective on immigration reform.
“I don’t believe that’s what America is all about,” Paul said about the idea of a fence on the border. “I think this fence business is designed and may well be used against us and keep us in. … So, every time you think fences keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in.”
The newest documentary from EthicsDaily.com explores faith and immigration. “GospelWithoutBorders” highlights people and stories in five states – Arizona, Arkansas, North Carolina, Alabama and Iowa – to explore how Christians should respond to these critical issues.
Robert H. Spain, a retired United Methodist bishop, says the documentary is “both informative and spiritually challenging.”
“Without question, the new influx of people is alive with political and national implications,” Spain offered even before Wednesday night’s debate that highlighted the issue.
“The immigration issue is like a picture in the process of being painted. All the strokes of the brush have not been laid upon the canvas and all the color is not yet added, but “GospelWithoutBorders” adds both strokes and color to the evolving response.”
As the GOP candidates continue to debate each other in the upcoming months, the topic of immigration reform – as well as the specter of Reagan – seems likely to hover over the campaigns.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.