Woodruff: GOP Candidates Spar Over Illegal Immigration

BY Judy Woodruff  October 19, 2011 at 3:54 PM EDT

As entertainment goes, Tuesday night’s GOP presidential debate in Las Vegas gave the casinos a run for their money.

We heard former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain repeatedly try to deflect attacks on his 9-9-9 tax plan by saying his fellow Republicans were comparing apples and oranges.

We watched an unusually testy exchange between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over whether Gingrich had ever endorsed mandating that individuals have health care insurance.

We saw the feisty side of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum when he went after Romney for being “a liberal” when he ran for office in 1994, and for having “no credibility” when it comes to criticizing President Obama for health care reform.
But given that Nevada’s population is almost 34 percent Hispanic and Asianfor the entire nation, roughly 21 percent — some of the most remarkable exchanges came over immigration, making the debate at times seem like a contest to see who would be toughest at keeping outsiders out.

Cain didn’t back down from his statement that he’d favor an electrified fence along the U.S. border with Mexico. Over the weekend, he had told an audience in Tennessee that there would be a sign by the fence that reads, “It will kill you.”

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry; photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused Romney of hypocrisy, saying he was denouncing illegal immigration though he paid undocumented immigrants to cut his grass. Romney insisted he didn’t think he’d ever hired an illegal worker, and inadvertently acknowledged a political motive for not wanting to be caught doing so. He said he told the company that employed the yard workers, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.”

Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman, wants a fence built along every foot of the almost 2,000-mile border — and went further, saying she’s interested in repealing or modifying the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil, including children of undocumented immigrants. Calling them “anchor babies,” Bachmann objected to the costs that she said are generated when “someone comes illegally across the border, specifically for the purpose of utilizing American resources for having a baby here, then all of the welfare benefits then attach to that baby.”

No doubt realizing how unfriendly all of this sounds to potential voters who have moved to the United States, legally as well as illegally, Romney eventually interjected: “Let’s step back. I think it’s important for us as Republicans on this stage to say something which hasn’t been said. And that is I think every single person here loves legal immigration. We respect people who come here legally.”

He then put in a plug for the so-called “E-Verify” system, a government-run program that lets employers check on potential employees — especially immigrants — to make sure they’re legal.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.