At GOP debate, candidates argue for denying emergency care, birthright citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants

The first meaningful Republican debate of the 2011-2012 primary was held in New Hampshire Monday, and the candidates had much to say on how they would handle immigration.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum answered an immigration question first, stating that “the federal government should not require states to provide government services.”

CNN’s John King, the debate moderator, then asked Rep. Ron Paul whether care should be provided to the 5-year-old child of an undocumented immigrant who walks into an emergency room.

Paul replied: “We shouldn’t have the mandates… we shouldn’t give them easy citizenship.” He then argued that the Catholic Church used to provide health care to immigrants, implying that religious charities could replace hospital emergency rooms, which since 1986 have been federally required to provide care regardless of the patient’s ability to pay. Paul was indignant in his opposition to the ER mandate: “You don’t have to say, ‘you’re not going to have care or there won’t be any care and everybody is going to starve to death and — and die on the streets without medical care.’ That’s the implication of the question. That’s just not true, and you shouldn’t accept it,” he finished, to applause from the audience.

Herman Cain then argued that in order to “deal with the illegals that are already here, [we should] empower the states to do what the federal government hasn’t done, won’t do, and can’t do.” However, he finished his answer with a rejection of Paul’s support for denying emergency care: “We are a compassionate nation. Of course they’re going to get care. But let’s fix the problem.”

Tim Pawlenty then argued that the issue of birthright citizenship proves the need to appoint conservative judges. “That result is because a U.S. Supreme Court determined that that right exists, notwithstanding language in the Constitution,” presumably referring to the 1898 decision stating that the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to anyone born in the United States. The decision, which Pawlenty apparently opposes, concerned a man born in San Francisco to Chinese parents who was denied reentry into the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Newt Gingrich took the final immigration question arguing that there was a middle ground between deporting “20 million illegal immigrants or [legalizing] all of them.” (Twenty million is the number King gave Gingrich, but the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security estimates the actual number illegal immigrants in the U.S. is more like 10.8 million, as of January 2010.) Sounding a note of relative moderation, he concluded by stating, “There are humane, practical steps to solve this problem, if we can get the politicians and the news media to just deal with it honestly.” Unfortunately, King did not ask Gingrich if that meant he supports legalization of some percentage of the undocumented population, the answer to which would surely have provoked some reaction from the other candidates.

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