EDITOR’S NOTE: Julianne Hing is covering the collision of politics and immigration in the 2016 campaign. But we need your support to get her on the campaign trail—and Beacon Reader will double every dollar you donate! Donate today to make more of this reporting possible.
Well that was fun, wasn’t it? On immigration, the 11 assembled GOP presidential candidates (15 if you count the “downticket” opening debate) gave up nothing brand new or heretofore unknown about their stances on immigration. But for viewers who made it that far into the night’s three-hour debate (four hours, including the opening act), the candidates gave a lesson in the predictable, nearly scripted, and entirely distorted approach to any talk of immigration reform and enforcement policy in today’s politics. It’s worth examining the playbook.
The first rule is that uttering some version of the phrase, “Secure the border first,” is the price of admission into the conversation about immigration policy. This is true for Democrats and Republicans alike, but particularly so for the GOP, whose brand is defined by hawkish, tough-guy bravado.
Carly Fiorina, the night’s early favorite, mentioned it in the opening minutes of the debate. “The border’s been insecure for 25 years,” she said. Donald Trump? Well, he said it in his own way. “First of all, I want to build a wall, a wall that works. So important, and it’s a big part of it. Second of all, we have a lot of really bad dudes in this country from outside, and I think Chris [Christie] knows that, maybe as well as anybody. They go, if I get elected. First day, they’re gone. Gangs all over the place. Chicago, Baltimore, no matter where you look.” That’s an actual quote.
“What we need to do is to secure the border, and we need to do it with more than just a wall,” Chris Christie contributed.
“She loves this country as much as anybody in this room, and she wants a secure border,” Jeb Bush offered, referring to his Mexican-born wife, Columba.
“If we don’t seal the border, the rest of this stuff clearly doesn’t matter,” Ben Carson said (but only after describing fences he saw in Arizona “that were not manned” and that he said wouldn’t have stopped him as a boy).
“How do you secure the borders?” Ted Cruz asked. “Well, I’ve been leading the fight in the Senate to triple the Border Patrol, to put in place fencings and walls, to put in place a strong biometric exit/entry system.”
Another candidate—only six left to choose from, any guesses?—said: “First, we must—we must secure our border, the physical border, with—with a wall, absolutely.” (Answer: Marco Rubio.)
Later, Bush, referring to his own approach to immigration reform, reminded viewers that “securing the border” is so universally agreed upon a policy proposal that “No one disagrees with that.”
Part of the problem with the phrase “secure our borders” is that it’s spoken with such repetition as to be rendered meaningless. It begs a follow-up that almost never comes: What, exactly, constitutes a “secure” border? Is it a US-Mexico border (always, it’s the US-Mexico border) with unprecedented numbers of Border Patrol agents? Because we’ve already got that. Is it a border patrolled by drones, agents in watchtowers and on horseback, ATVs, in SUVs? Because we’ve taken care of that, too.