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Republican Candidates — Minus Donald Trump — Just Had The Best Immigration Debate Of 2016

Unlike the Democratic debates, which have avoided the issue, the Republican presidential candidates at Thursday night's Fox News debate were forced to reconcile video of their past statements on immigration.

Posted on January 29, 2016, at 12:57 a.m. ET

Charlie Neibergall / AP

Republican presidential candidates faced their toughest and most substantive policy questions on immigration yet on the debate stage Thursday night, as candidates were forced to watch old video clips of themselves discussing the issue and reconcile comments at odds with their current stances.

At Thursday's Fox News debate, just four days out from the Iowa caucus, moderator Megyn Kelly began by showing Florida Sen. Marco Rubio a video from before he was elected to the Senate, where he said he never had and never will support any effort to grant "blanket legalization amnesty" to people that have entered or stayed in the country illegally. On a second video he was shown saying legalization is unfair to those who have come to the country legally, something he has also said in past debates.

Hadn't Rubio, Kelly asked, already shown that he can't be trusted on immigration by then going on to support a 2013 immigration overhaul?

Rubio, as he has began doing in the new year, tied his tougher immigration stance to the rise of ISIS. And without Donald Trump at the debate — he declined to participate — Rubio made the only reference to him on the issue of immigration.

"We are not going to round up and deport 12 million people, but we're not going to hand out citizenship cards, either," Rubio said.

A tussle ensued when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has struggled to gain oxygen on immigration when faced with Trump's loud, controversial stances, reminded Rubio that the bipartisan Senate bill did support a path to citizenship. Bush set up Rubio with credit for being part of the effort, which has not been popular in the Republican primary, before hitting him.

"He led the charge to finally fix this immigration problem that has existed now for, as Marco says, for 30 years," Bush said. "And then he cut and run because it wasn't popular amongst conservatives, I guess."

Bush being Bush, he then reminded the audience that they can buy his book about immigration on Amazon for $2.99.

"It's not a bestseller, I can promise you," he said to light laughter.

Rubio, who in 2013 gave impassioned floor speeches about the place of immigration in his life and in American society, and Bush, who has said undocumented immigrants cross the border as "an act of love" for their families, knew the drill by this point in the primary and took turns criticizing each other for flip-flopping on stances they have both supported in the past.

"It's interesting that Jeb mentions the book," Rubio said. "That's the book where you changed your position on immigration because you used to support a path to citizenship."

"So did you," Bush countered.

Then it was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's turn to be haunted by old videos from 2013.

"I don't want immigration reform to fail," he said in one clip. "I want immigration reform to pass."

Cruz argued in the 2013 video that his amendment, which would have stripped a path to citizenship from the bill but kept legal status, would allow "for those 11 million people who are here illegally, a legal status, with citizenship off the table."

Cruz has maintained this was all a bluff to show that Democrats weren't serious about bringing people out of the shadows but instead were interested in millions of new voters.

In one of the rare instances where many of the candidates were given a chance to respond, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul called Cruz the "king of saying, 'You're for amnesty.' Everybody's for amnesty except for Ted Cruz."

Cruz repeatedly sought cover by invoking names of his hardline immigration supporters — Sen. Jeff Sessions and Rep. Steve King — as well as conservative radio hosts Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh.

"If it wasn't for Ted Cruz, the Gang of Eight Rubio/Schumer bill would have passed," Cruz said, invoking Sessions' defense of him. "But because Ted stood up and helped lead the effort, millions rose up to kill it."

Cruz again told Rubio that when the "battle was waged, my friend Senator Rubio chose to stand with Barack Obama and Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and support amnesty."

Writing furiously as Cruz used his stock argument against him, Rubio shot back, "This is the lie that Ted's campaign is built on," that Cruz is the most conservative and everyone else is a RINO.

Rubio sought to tie Cruz to his old comments on reaching "compromise" on immigration and wanting to "bring people out of the shadows."

"Now you want to trump Trump on immigration," Rubio parried.

When they both joined the Senate they made the same promise, Cruz argued: "If you elect me, I will lead the fight against amnesty." But Cruz said only he kept that promise.

Making his oft-repeated argument for executive experience as a governor against the two senators, Chris Christie jumped in.

"I feel like I need a Washington to English dictionary converter, right?" he said as the crowd laughed.

While Democrats have only had one back-and-forth on immigration during their four debates, with two debates completely ignoring the issue, the Republican exchange on immigration was one of the most robust sections of the night, leading Google searches of the term "amnesty" to spike 380%.

A YouTube question from Dulce Candy, a young woman who came to the country from Mexico, served in the armed forces, became a citizen and now has her own company, broke up the back-and-forth and provided one of the lighter moments of the night from Ben Carson.

The campaign's rhetoric has made immigrants who contribute positively to the American economy question their place in the country, Candy said. "If America does not seem like a welcoming place for immigrant entrepreneurs, will the American economy suffer?" she asked.

"Dr. Carson, that's one — that one's for you," Kelly said.

"Oh, great," Carson cracked, the crowd laughing.

Bush's response to the young woman invoked hopes more prominent before the rise of Trump that, as part-wonk, part compassionate conservative, he could unite the party once again under the Bush name and take on Hillary Clinton in the general election.

"We should be a welcoming nation," Bush said, adding that as a young woman who served in the military she deserved everyone's respect. "Our identity is not based on race or ethnicity, it's based on a set of shared values. That's American citizenship."

"Dulce Candy — a pretty cool name, actually," he added.

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