Why The GOP Candidates Can't Answer The Immigration Question

December 01, 2011 11:00 am ET — Julia Krieger

Many of the GOP presidential 2012 candidates were more than happy to pounce on their rival Newt Gingrich for his endorsement of a path to legal status for some undocumented immigrants. But although Gingrich said he's "prepared to take the heat" for proposing a "humane" policy, he threw some of that heat in the way of his opponents, who proved completely unprepared to say what their own plans for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States would be.

In recent interviews, Mitt Romney, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) and Rick Santorum all spun themselves in circles attempting to avoid the question. After all, for candidates courting the conservative base, suggesting anything in the neighborhood of a path to citizenship violates the politically toxic taboo of supporting "amnesty," and the only politically acceptable answer — mass deportations — is impossible. As the Washington Post's Ed Rogers explains:

We will not deport a population as large as the state of Ohio's, and any candidate who says otherwise is either ignorant or a hypocrite, and should be penalized, not rewarded. Those candidates would need to tell us how their deportation plan would pass Congress and then how it would be implemented. We would need to know about the holding pens, the roundup procedures developed for law enforcement and how we would deal with families that have both legal and illegal members.

First up on Fox News was Romney, whose awkward attempt at damage control on his immigration flip-flop proved unconvincing. First, he tried playing noncommittal, settling for: "I think I've said in the past it makes sense for them to go home if we set up a system for them to apply" for citizenship or permanent residency. When pressed on what he'd "do with the 11 million plus people who are already here," he changed the topic to border security, insisting that must be dealt with first.

A few hours later, Fox News host Greta Van Susteren asked Rick Perry not once, not twice, but five times about what to do with the 11 million. Perry, too, insisted on focusing on border security, responding, "The fact is, it's just an intellectual conversation until we secure the borders." He ultimately refused to engage the question, telling his host, "I'm not going to sit here and go through and talk about all the different options because there may be some ideas that haven't been talked about yet."

Appearing with Van Susteren after Perry's interview, Rick Santorum issued a similar non-response to the same question by reaching for his border security blanket right off the bat: "What I would say is first, build a fence, number two, we enforce the law."

Perhaps the reason for the presidential contenders' inability to provide a coherent answer is that they know they can't give a comprehensive — or remotely practical — response without invoking the "amnesty" term and thereby alienating far-right voters ahead of the 2012 primaries.