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Deportation vs. self-deportation in the debate, deciphered

Stay or go? Deportation and
Stay or go? Deportation and "self-deportation" were part of the conversation last night as President Barack Obama (R) and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) participated in the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

After no mention of immigration in their first encounter, President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney spoke at length about it during Tuesday night's second presidential candidates' debate in Long Island. 

While it was good to hear a decent chunk of the conversation dedicated to the topic, the candidates generally stuck to the talking points they've employed so far. That still made for an interesting conversation, especially when both candidates addressed who gets to stay in the country and who doesn't; the topic of deportation — and self-deportation — has been a sore spot for both.

Obama touted his new deferred action program, which is allowing some young undocumented immigrants to obtain temporary legal status. While Romney didn't complain about the Obama administration's tough enforcement policies, the resulting record deportations have met with harsh criticism from some corners, especially among Latino voters. Tuesday night, Obama defended his "criminals go, kids stay" mantra. 

Romney, meanwhile, has had a hard time easing out of the corner he backed himself into earlier this year when he began talking about "self-deportation." Obama brought up that phrase  Tuesday, even before the questions turned to immigration. Romney's lengthy response sounded defensive.

Some highlights from the debate on deportation and self-deportation, interpreted in context:


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, and that’s what we’ve done.

And what I’ve also said is, for young people who come here, brought here oftentimes by their parents, have gone to school here, pledged allegiances to the flag, think of this as their country, understand themselves as Americans in every way except having papers, then we should make sure that we give them a pathway to citizenship, and that’s what I’ve done administratively.

Interpreted: Obama's track record on immigration enforcement, with deportations at record levels since not long after he took office, has been a thorn for some Democrats. The administration has made a point of emphasizing its going-after-criminals message, embodied in the Secure Communities enforcement program that allows the fingerprints of people booked at local facilities to be shared with immigration officials.

But the program has been criticized for landing non-offenders and low-level offenders in the net. Obama's immigration stance has also played out in the deportation case reviews that began late last year, intended to weed out "low priority" cases. So far they've failed to yield a large number of reprieves.

Tuesday night, the president played up the antidote: Leniency for young people who arrived as minors and have clean records. Deferred action applies only to those who arrived in the U.S. under age 16, have no serious criminal offenses on record, have lived here five continuous years and were under 30 as of mid-June. It affects the same crowd of undocumented young people who would be eligible for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which Obama has also supported, but which has not moved forward since it was reintroduced last year, after a losing Senate vote in late 2010.

Obama hit his challenger's remark made several month ago indicating that Romney would veto the DREAM Act, and hit him twice on his self-deportation remark made in January during a GOP candidates' debate, to which Romney responded:

Now let me mention one other thing, and that is, self-deportation says let it — let people make their own choice. What I was saying is, we’re not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented, illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead, let — make — people make their own choice.

And if they find that they can’t get the benefits here that they want and they can’t find the job they want, then they’ll make a decision to go a place where they have better opportunities. But I’m not in favor of rounding up people and taking them out of this country. I am in favor, as the president has said, and I agree with him, which is that if people have committed crimes, we got to get them out of this country.

Romney also said, earlier on: 

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.

Interpreted: Romney has expressed support for aspects of Arizona's anti-illegal immigration enforcement, something that Obama mischaracterized Tuesday as support for the state's SB 1070 law. (It wasn't quite; see PolitiFact's post today.)

But although Romney also didn't have his Arizona laws straight, he has expressed support for a different Arizona measure, one from 2007 that requires employers to verify employees' status. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that provision last year. Both Arizona laws are forms of what anti-illegal immigration advocates refer to as "attrition through enforcement," making life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they choose to leave — or self-deport. However, not all of these immigrants return to their native countries; some simply move to other states.

Romney has criticized — and has indicated he'd discontinue — Obama's deferred action plan for young undocumented immigrants, and has called for a more permanent solution. But he's been unclear on what that solution would be. In a recent Univision interview, he mentioned a proposal floated earlier this year by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to allow some young undocumented immigrants a reprieve from deportation without an immediate path to citizenship.

Romney's mention of military service as a path to legal status was interesting. After former GOP candidate Newt Gingrich said earlier this year that he'd support a military-only version of the DREAM Act, Rep. David Rivera of Florida introduced a bill proposing a military-only path to legal status. While it hasn't moved forward, the idea was promoted as one that Republicans could get behind, given the way GOP support for the original DREAM Act has dropped off since the initially bipartisan bill was introduced in 2001.

The immigration conversation Tuesday night was pretty rich, with Obama and Romney touching on topics ranging from border security to skilled immigrant visas. Read the full transcript here and feel free share your thoughts below.