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Presidentiality: Herman Cain and the electrified fence

“Presidentiality” is a weekly web series with Need to Know correspondent Win Rosenfeld that dissects what the candidates are saying, doing and promising on the campaign trail. Each week, “Presidentiality” deconstructs the candidates’ rhetoric through the lenses of historical precedent, economic theory and science.

As the Republican presidential primary intensifies, the candidates are seeking new and more forceful ways to draw sharper contrasts between themselves for voters. And in this moment of widespread discontent over the economy, with protesters occupying Wall Street and camping out in cities across the country, illegal immigration has, oddly, emerged as perhaps the most divisive issue of the campaign.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, traded poison-tipped barbs over the issue of illegal immigration at the most recent Republican presidential debate, with Perry accusing Romney of hiring illegal immigrants to work at his home. Perry has himself been tarred as an enabler of illegal immigration for supporting a law in his state allows the children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition at Texas colleges.

But perhaps the most fiery, and most controversial, comments on the issue have come from Herman Cain, the former businessman and tea party favorite who has emerged as a conservative alternative to Romney — and, in some polls, the new front-runner. Cain attracted intense criticism over the weekend for vowing to build an “electrified” fence at the U.S.-Mexico border that could “kill” illegal immigrants.

Cain repeated the remark at several rallies in Tennessee, and was greeted with loud cheers and laughter each time. He even added at one stop in Harriman, Tenn. that he would post soldiers at the border “with real guns and real bullets.” When asked on Sunday if the electrified fence was a serious plan, Cain said “it was a joke.” But he recanted that claim later this week when pressed by reporters, saying of the plan to build an electrified fence, “I’m not walking away from that.”

Cain’s thinking, it seems, is that the threat of deadly force would cause potential border-crossers to think twice. But if history is any guide, immigrants have been willing to brave far worse just to get into the country. “Presidentiality” explores the history of violence against immigrants in America, and finds that even an angry mob wielding brick bats and butcher knives isn’t enough to stop immigrants from seeking a new and better life on American soil.