Immigration as a whole—both legal and illegal immigration, high numbers of which concern Americans—dominated the first GOP presidential candidate forum in Manchester, New Hampshire, at Saint Anselm College.
The forum, attended by 14 Republican presidential candidates, is the last major event ahead of the first televised debate in Cleveland, Ohio later this week. Even without frontrunner Donald Trump in the room, there wasn’t another issue that got as many questions from the moderator or as many comments from GOP candidates, and it’s clear that immigration is the number one issue on Americans’ minds heading into the 2016 presidential primary process.
Moderator Jack Heath, of WGIR-AM and the host of “New Hampshire Today,” opened the forum with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry by asking three questions of Perry about immigration. He noted before he did so that after surveying voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, on the most important issues to them, “topping the list” were two: a mainstay issue, the economy, and an issue that usually isn’t as high a priority in presidential campaigns, immigration.
After Perry stumbled through answers to them making the first of a couple major gaffes, Heath moved on to the second candidate: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Santorum, who supports a 25 percent reduction in immigration until the economy is under control, made sure to bring that up when he was asked about the issue.
“Do you believe this president and this administration truly want real border security?” Heath asked Santorum.
“I don’t think this administration is serious about border security or serious about protecting working men and women,” Santorum answered. “In the last 20 years, 35 million people have come into this country legally and illegally. Now, that can be a good thing and that can be a bad thing. But the reality is wages for those workers I’ve been talking about have been flatlined for 20 years. We have never seen such decrepit wage growth and who are the 90 percent of the people who are coming in legally and illegally? Almost all unskilled workers to compete against our hardworking men and women who want a chance to succeed but we’re not giving it to them. I’m the only person in this race that has called for not just securing the border or following up on the visas and imposing E-Verify, but calling for a 25 percent reduction in the unskilled labor that is coming into this country. It is a serious problem. Everyone else is dancing around it. I’m going to stand for the American worker.”
Heath followed up with Santorum to ask: “Briefly, Senator, how should we deal with employers who hire illegal aliens?”
“E-Verify has to be universal and employees both current and future have to comply with it,” Santorum replied.
The next candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, faced an immigration question right off the bat.
“Governor, what would you do with so-called sanctuary cities? In San Francisco, we saw that God-awful murder of that beautiful, young mother by an illegal immigrant criminal,” Heath asked Kasich.
“Well, I think they need to be eliminated, Jack,” Kasich replied. “This is a Republican and Democrat agreement there. In terms of immigration, I mean, obviously the border needs to be secured. There needs to be an expanded guest worker program so people can move in and out and support their family and do it in a legal way. With the 12 million [illegal aliens], we need to find out who they are, if they’re law-abiding, God-fearing folks. They’re going to have to pay a penalty towards legalization, they’re going to have to wait. I think it’s border, it’s a reasonable guest worker program and it’s the ones who are the 12 million if they violate the law they’re going to have to be deported or put in prison. And at the same time, we clearly need to make sure that we can protect who gets in and out of this country and once we put something into effect like that, anyone who comes in has got to be send home. No one should be confused about it.”
Later, when former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina hammered the “professional political class” and “festering problems” that result from that, she noted that “we’ve been talking a lot today about illegal immigration.”
“How long have we been talking about the border being insecure?” Fiorina asked. “Thirty years. How long have we known it was insecure? Thirty years. How long has it been insecure? Thirty years. We talk a lot at election time, but somehow we never solve these festering problems.”
Fiorina, a moment later, called on America to invest in things “that matter,” a list of actions including “securing the border.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who appeared via satellite from Washington, D.C., along with Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), was asked by Heath about immigration.
“Sen. Rubio, if elected president, what would your policy be for the undocumented aliens in the United States already? Some would say we can’t realistically get rid of 11 million people,” Heath asked Rubio.
“I’m glad you asked that,” Rubio replied. “First of all, this is an issue everyone agrees what we have today on immigration doesn’t work for America.”
Rubio proceeded to—while saying he doesn’t support it being done in “one massive comprehensive piece of legislation” like his prior Gang of Eight bill—lay out how he would, if president, pass every bit of the Gang of Eight bill through into law in pieces.
“There is only one way forward on this and it will require three steps,” Rubio said. “They have to happen in the following sequence: First, we have to prove to the American people that illegal immigration is under control.”
Rubio didn’t call for an end to illegal immigration, just for it to be “under control.”
“It’s not good enough to just pass a law to say that we’re going to bring it under control,” Rubio said. “People demand to see it.”
Rubio joined former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who said this before he spoke, in calling for an increase in legal immigration levels but a shift away from chain migration based on which family members future prospective immigrants already have in America and a shift to a merit-based immigration system.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), in making a gaffe later in the forum in the second round, talked about immigration.
“We’re not going to balance the budget without Democratic support,” Graham said. “We’re not going to fix immigration unless you get a bipartisan plan. I’m from the reddest of red states. My biggest sin is I’ve worked for Democrats to not only try to secure our border but find a rational solution to deal with 11 million people.”
It’s unclear how big of a focus—if any at all—the anchors at the Fox News Channel will put on this issue heading into the first debate in Cleveland later this week. But it’s clear it’s dominating the discussion.