Immigration issues were missing in action when President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney squared off for their first debate in Denver on Oct. 3, 2012.
And when Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan debated a week later, again there was no mention of immigration.
All that changed, however, during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York on Oct. 16.
Both Obama and Romney had a lot to say about immigration and what the country should do to fix the broken system. The two men sparred over state lawmaking, the DREAM Act, self-deportation and comprehensive reform.
The president criticized Romney for his support for Arizona’s SB 1070, the controversial law that gives the state and local law enforcement broad powers to enforce immigration law. The Obama administration challenged the law in the courts and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected three of its key provisions.
“His main strategy during the Republican primary was to say, ‘We're going to encourage self-deportation,’” Obama said of Romney. “Making life so miserable on folks that they'll leave. He called the Arizona law a model for the nation. Part of the Arizona law said that law enforcement officers could stop folks because they suspected maybe they looked like they might be undocumented workers and check their papers.
“You know what? If my daughter or yours looks to somebody like they're not a citizen, I don't want -- I don't want to empower somebody like that. So, we can fix this system in a comprehensive way. And when Governor Romney says, the challenge is, ‘Well Obama didn't try.’ That's not true. I have sat down with Democrats and Republicans at the beginning of my term. And I said, let's fix this system. Including Senators previously who had supported it on the Republican side. But it's very hard for Republicans in Congress to support comprehensive immigration reform, if their standard-bearer has said that, this is not something I'm interested in supporting.”
Romney has consistently criticized the president for not getting comprehensive reform through Congress when he came into office with a Democratic majority in the Senate and House.
“Now when the president ran for office, he said that he'd put in place, in his first year, a piece of legislation -- he'd file a bill in his first year that would reform our -- our immigration system, protect legal immigration, stop illegal immigration,” Romney said. “He didn't do it.”
The former Massachusetts governor denied that he supports all of the Arizona law: “I did not say that the Arizona law was a model for the nation in that aspect. I said that the E-Verify portion of the Arizona law, which is -- which is the portion of the law which says that employers could be able to determine whether someone is here illegally or not illegally, that that was a model for the nation.”
President Obama countered that the immigration adviser to the Romney campaign is Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who authored the Arizona law.
“Governor Romney says he wasn't referring to Arizona as a model for the nation. His top adviser on immigration is the guy who designed the Arizona law, the entirety of it; not E-Verify, the whole thing,” Obama said. “That's his policy. And it's a bad policy. And it won't help us grow.
“Look, when we think about immigration, we have to understand there are folks all around the world who still see America as the land of promise. And they provide us energy and they provide us innovation and they start companies like Intel and Google. And we want to encourage that.”
Romney opposed the DREAM Act and has criticized President Obama for giving young immigrants the “deferred action” alternative that allows them to stay and work or study in the country for two years without fear of deportation. Romney has said he would allow a path for young illegal immigrants to obtain legal residency through military service:
“The kids of those that came here illegally, those kids, I think, should have a pathway to become a permanent resident of the United States and military service, for instance, is one way they would have that kind of pathway to become a permanent resident.”
Romney said he wants to allow more visas for talented immigrants to come and work in the United States. He said he wants to make the system more efficient.
“I want our legal system to work better. I want it to be streamlined. I want it to be clearer. I don't think you have to -- shouldn't have to hire a lawyer to figure out how to get into this country legally,” Romney said. “I also think that we should give visas to people -- green cards, rather, to people who graduate with skills that we need. People around the world with accredited degrees in science and math get a green card stapled to their diploma, come to the U.S. of A. We should make sure our legal system works.
“Number two, we're going to have to stop illegal immigration. There are 4 million people who are waiting in line to get here legally. Those who've come here illegally take their place. So I will not grant amnesty to those who have come here illegally.”
Obama credited his predecessor, President George W. Bush, with taking a more constructive approach to immigration than Romney.
“George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform,” the president said. “He didn’t call for self-deportation.”
Obama said, if elected to a second term, his administration would continue to focus deportation efforts on illegal immigrations with serious criminal records and keep pushing for the DREAM Act, which he says Romney has promised he would veto if elected.
“What I've also said is if we're going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly and go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families,” Obama said. “And that's what we've done. And what I've also said is for young people who come here, brought here often times by their parents. Had gone to school here, pledged allegiance to the flag. Think of this as their country. Understand themselves as Americans in every way except having papers. And we should make sure that we give them a pathway to citizenship.”