No straight talk on immigration

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During Tuesday night’s debate, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney discussed a wide range of topics, including immigration — an issue of particular importance to Texans, given our 1,200-mile border with Mexico. While the candidates mostly relied upon familiar, oversimplified talking points, an attentive viewer could grasp much more about their respective positions on immigration based on what they didn’t say rather than what they did.

When asked, “Mr. Romney, what do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?”  Romney took the president to task for not fulfilling a 2008 campaign promise to reform the immigration laws in this country.

“Now when the president ran for office, he said that he’d put in place, in his first year, a piece of legislation — he’d file a bill in his first year that would reform our immigration system, protect legal immigration, stop illegal immigration,” said Romney. “He didn’t do it. He had a Democrat House, a Democrat Senate, super-majority in both Houses. Why did he fail to even promote legislation that would have provided an answer for those that want to come legally and for those that are here illegally today? … A question I think the president will have a chance to answer right now.”

“Good, I look forward to it,” Obama said as he rose from his seat.

The honest answer to Romney’s question might have been that Obama was not willing to spend his political capital trying to pass immigration reform in this term, when health care took center stage. But the president didn’t give that answer.

Instead, Obama presented an oft-heard string of clichéd platitudes about how America is a nation of immigrants, before giving an unspecific overview of his immigration philosophy and referring to his support of the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students and members of the military.

Obama accused Romney of calling for policies meant to encourage self-deportation, “making life so miserable on folks that they’ll leave,” and declaring the infamous Arizona immigration law a model for the nation during the Republican primaries.

Then, Romney, pressed by the debate moderator to address his support of self-deportation, deflected too.

“I did not say that the Arizona law was a model for the nation in that aspect,” he said. “I said that the E-Verify portion of the Arizona law, which is the portion of the law which says that employers could be able to determine whether someone is here illegally or not illegally, that that was a model for the nation.”

Romney went on to say that “self-deportation says let people make their own choice… And if they find that they can’t get the benefits here that they want and they can’t find the job they want, then they’ll make a decision to go to a place where they have better opportunities. But I’m not in favor of rounding up people and taking them out of this country.”

Romney’s description makes his stance sound very similar to the status quo, which is not what advocates of self-deportation intended when they first proposed it. Obama described Romney’s economic plan as “sketchy,” and the word applies equally well to the governor himself.

In Texas, immigration does not separate voters by one clean partisan line. Both former President George W. Bush and current Texas governor Rick Perry support more lenient immigration policies. During the Republican primaries, Perry, despite opposition from others on stage and booing from the audience, confidently justified his support of a Texas law that allows undocumented students to qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities: “Texas had a decision to make: Are we going to kick these young people to the curb and pay for their existence in our state through social programs or some other type of government dollars — up to and including incarceration?” Perry said.

At the time, Romney responded by sending reporters a document about Perry’s immigration record titled, “Rick Perry brings his liberal illegal immigration policies to New Hampshire,” and he told an audience in that state that if the U.S. government wants to stem the tide of illegal immigration, it should “build a fence, have enough people to patrol it and turn off the magnets that draw people here illegally, like giving them in-state tuition.”

The Romney behind that position was clearly not the same man who accused Obama of not doing enough to help immigrants Tuesday night.

After watching Romney and Obama hem and haw about immigration, circumventing the subject at every opportunity, Texans of both parties should remind the two candidates that down here, we try to talk a little straighter about an issue that has no easy answers.