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Immigration: What are the presidential candidates saying?

28 November 2011

By Julie Bissinger, Intern 

As the presidential primary campaign season continues, Republican candidates have sparred on a variety of issues, however one area of relative common ground is the topic of immigration.  Recently, candidates have explained their views on the issue in more detail and proposed changes to U.S. immigration policy, with the two most common themes being (1.) the perceived need to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and (2.) to eliminate factors that may attract undocumented immigrants to the United States. 

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney argued during the Republican Presidential Debate at the Reagan Library that the U.S. needs to both secure its border with Mexico and eliminate factors that encourage undocumented immigration. Romney supports building a fence that spans the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border, and said that “If we want to secure the border, we have to make sure we have a fence, technologically, determining where people are, enough agents to oversee it, and turn off that magnet.” Romney defined “magnets” as certain factors such as the hiring of undocumented immigrants, “sanctuary cities,” and college tuition breaks for undocumented students. Romney supports the use of the E-Verify system, which he says would “make sure that we can find out who’s here illegally and who’s not, and crack down on people who come here illegally.”

 Congresswoman Michele Bachmann also supports the construction of a border fence and the elimination of factors that she thinks encourage undocumented immigration. While speaking at the Fox News-Google Republican Debate, Bachmann said, “I would build a fence on America's southern border on every mile, on every yard, on every foot, on every inch of the southern border.” During the CNN Western Republican Presidential Debate she said that she would “enforce English as the official language of the United States government” and “not allow taxpayer-funded benefits for [undocumented immigrants] or for their children.”

 During the CNN Western Republican Presidential Debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry argued against building a border fence, and said that “the way you really stop the activities along that border that are illegal, whether it’s the drug cartels or whether it’s bringing in illegal weapons or whether it’s illegal immigrants that are coming in, is to put boots on the ground.” He claimed that building a fence would prove too costly and would take too much time to construct. “Build a virtual defense zone, if you will, along that border…you can do it with strategic fencing in the obvious places where it matters,” Perry said during the debate.

 Herman Cain also emphasized securing borders during the CNN Western Republican Debate. “I believe we should secure the border for real, and it would be a combination of a fence, technology, as well as possibly boots on the ground for some of the more dangerous areas,” Cain said. He also favored allowing the states to address immigration matters: “Empower the states to do what the federal government is not doing in terms of enforcing the laws.” Rather than change current law, Cain argued that the nation should “promote the existing path to citizenship by cleaning up the bureaucracy in Washington, DC.”

 Former Senator Rick Santorum claimed that the U.S. needs to secure its borders before any attempts at immigration reform can be made. “We are going to secure that border first, and that’s the most important thing to do,” Santorum said at the Reagan Presidential Library debate. Once the border is secured, Santorum proposed that “…we have a program that sets the parameters that says, you’re going to come to this country, come here according to the rules.”

 Although Congressman Ron Paul supported securing the border, he also made it clear that he does not believe that simply building a fence is the answer. “Every time you think of a fence keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in,” Paul said during the debate at the Reagan Library. Like most of the other candidates, Paul stressed that any potential incentives for undocumented immigration should be eliminated. “I think we need to remove the incentive – easy road to citizenship…They qualify for benefits as well, you know, the welfare benefits. We shouldn’t have to give…free health care and free education.”

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich emphasized the human aspect of reforming the immigration system. “It’s got to be done in a much more human way that [sic] thinking that to automatically deport millions of people,” Gingrich said at the Reagan Library. During The Iowa Republican Debate Gingrich maintained that “We should have a method for distinguishing between people who have lived here a long time and people who have come very recently.” He also recommended implementing a guest worker program.

Like Gingrich, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman would like the American public to focus on the human aspects of immigration. “And I hope that all of us, as we deal with this immigration issue, will always see it as an issue that resolves [sic] around real human beings,” Huntsman said during the debate at the Reagan Library. He also claimed that serious discussions regarding immigration reform cannot occur until the border is secured. To secure the border, Huntsman proposed a combined strategy of building a fence and deploying National Guard troops. “Eighteen hundred miles, we've got a third of it done, between fencing and technology and National Guard boots on the ground.  We can finish.”

Julie Bissinger is a student at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in Journalism and is a current intern with Project Vote Smart. For more information on internship opportunities with Project Vote Smart, contact us at or by calling 1-888-VOTE-SMART.” 

Project Vote Smart has been made possible by over 100,000 liberal and conservative fellow citizens. No funds are accepted from lobbyists, corporations, unions or others that support or oppose candidates. As a volunteer-based organization, Vote Smart will survive on individual small contributions or not at all. For more information on how you can become a Vote Smart Member, please visit us here

Related tags: blog, border-security

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