Last night, the top 10 polling GOP candidates entered into their first live debate on Fox News. Thanks in part to Donald Trump, the subject of immigration garnered over 1,400 questions from Facebook and Twitter users in advance of the debate. For those that missed it, the transcript of the debate is here. Several trends were apparent.
1. "Sanctuary Cities" in the role of Willie Horton for 2016. It is clear that Kathryn Steinle's murder will continue to be politicized and put Democrats on the defense. Republicans have repeatedly invoked the specter of "sanctuary cities" at every opportunity as Jeb! did last night when he said:
We need to be much more strategic on how we deal with border enforcement, border security. We need to eliminate the sanctuary cities in this country. It is ridiculous and tragic…(APPLAUSE)— that people are dying because of the fact that — that local governments are not following the federal law.
The Democrats need to more effectively counter the GOP use of "sanctuary cities" as a soundbite. The term itself has no legal meaning and is purely political. But the public has no way of knowing that cities and localities cannot actually "refuse to follow federal law." The beauty of the "sanctuary cities" soundbite is that it does double duty in eliding major complexities within immigration federalism while tapping into nativist and xenophobic fears of immigrants as criminals, a tired but persistent trope that won't go away despite countervailing evidence. It is also being deployed at a time when many white ethnics are insecure not just about the economy, but about the cultural and racial changes wrought by immigration--indeed this is the sentiment Donald Trump's inartful rants about Mexicans is channeling. The issue is as complex as this recent explainer shows. Still, Democrats have to come up with a way to more succinctly convey that information to the public because even some liberals are confused about the sanctuary cities bullshit.
2. Assiduous avoidance of what to do with the 11 million. Consistent with the discussion on the "happy hour" debate held at 5pm earlier, the candidates each pledged their support for securing the border and more enforcement. Wishing to avoid a Romney "self-deportation" self-inflicted wound, noticeably absent was any discussion of what to do with the 11 million undocumented persons already here in the country. The only hint is that the candidates have said that benefits would not roll out until the "border is secure", which is akin to saying "I won't marry you until you rectify every flaw in yourself", that is to say, to set out an impossible standard.
3. Jeb!'s big flip-flop from "path to citizenship" to "earned legal status". Many of the candidates have changed their positions on immigration over time like Scott Walker who used to support comprehensive immigration reform but now is all about enforcement, but the whopper flopper award goes to Jeb Bush who in 2012 on the Charlie Rose show said the following:
You have to deal with this issue. You can’t ignore it. And so, either a path to citizenship, which I would support and that does put me probably out of the mainstream of most conservatives; Or a path to legalization, a path to residency of some kind.
By 2013, in the publication of his book on immigration, Jeb! had again changed his mind and now wants a path to "earned legal status", which means he believes the undocumented should be able to apply for a status that would allow them to become documented, but would in no way put them on a path to citizenship, what political theorist Elizabeth Cohen has referred to as a state of "semi-citizenship".
Any way you cut it, immigration will remain a central issue in the 2016 presidential contest and all the candidates would be wise to staff up on immigration specialists.