By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- For most of last night's debate on CNN, the Democratic presidential candidates did what you would expect: They argued with one another and tried to separate themselves from their opponents on issues ranging from Iraq to health care to gay marriage.
But it was on immigration reform that things got really interesting. There, some of the candidates seemed to be arguing with themselves and trying to separate what they believe now from what they believed previously. And that needle isn't always easy to thread.
Gov. Bill Richardson initially said that he supported the bipartisan Senate compromise, and now he says he is against it. When pressed during the debate to explain why a proposed "earned legalization" doesn't amount to amnesty, he said that, under the Senate plan (which he opposes), illegal immigrants seeking permanent residency would have to return home temporarily as part of a "touchback" requirement. Yet, Richardson said, he considers that same provision "unworkable."
Sen. Hillary Clinton says that she favors giving illegal immigrants a path to legalization. It's a reasonable position, but who would have it expected from the same elected official who, in February 2003, talked tough on the issue by reassuring the listening audience of WABC radio in New York that she was "adamantly against illegal immigrants?" If you're "adamantly against" something, why support a measure that excuses it and even, if you believe the critics, encourages more of the same in the years to come?
Sen. Barack Obama voted last year to build 750 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border. Now he supports giving illegal immigrants a path to earned legalization. What a confusing message that sends to those who are considering entering the United States illegally: "We don't want you here, and we're going to try to fence you out. But, if you get in, we'll give you the chance to stay permanently."
And Sen. Joe Biden admitted during the debate that a wall wouldn't keep out illegal immigrants. That would be the same Joe Biden who last year, yep, voted for the wall that won't keep out illegal immigrants. So why support something that you know isn't going to work? Biden tried to sell the line that his intent in supporting the fencing was to keep out illegal drugs not illegal immigrants, who can go over, around or under any fence. As if drug smugglers haven't known how to go over, around or under border fencing.
This is a complicated issue, and it screams out for nuance. But much of what we heard last night was more like nonsense. Too many Democrats running for president are trying to have it both ways on immigration, wanting to appear both tough and compassionate.
Good luck with that, folks. I'd settle for you just staking out a clear position and sticking with it -- no matter how many enemies you make.
With the Republican presidential candidates coming to New Hampshire tomorrow for their own debate, also sponsored by CNN, let's see if the other side does any better in covering this rough terrain.
Don't hold your breath.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.
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