Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.
San Diego (CNN) -- Is the border between the United States and Mexico, as some claim, a war zone that calls out for heavy-duty military hardware? Or is it simply, as others insist, a gateway between two countries that are friends and neighbors?
The answer, in large part, depends on whether Americans think the drug violence that has been erupting within Mexico is likely to stay "within Mexico."
This brings us to the question that Phil Truluck, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Heritage Foundation, asked the GOP presidential hopefuls in Tuesday's debate on national security. Truluck wanted to know whether the candidates considered the Mexican drug war a threat to our country's national interest, and what they would do to help the Mexican government fight the cartels.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said it was time for "a 21st century Monroe Doctrine" to increase cooperation between nations in the Western Hemisphere, put more "boots on the ground" and use "aviation assets" (read: predator drones) -- all to help secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul seized the opportunity to declare the drug war a failure, state his opposition to giving citizenship to illegal immigrants and declare that instead of focusing so much attention on Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. government should worry more about its southern border.
Businessman Herman Cain insisted that "an insecure border is a national security threat" because of the death toll in Mexico (more than 30,000 since December 2006), because an even higher number of Mexicans consider their country a failed state and because "terrorists" have come to the United States by way of Mexico.
From these responses, we learned ... nothing.
For a more substantive, honest and mature discussion of border security -- and the larger immigration issue that has been bound to it -- you had to turn to Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker, in pointed language, challenged the idea that the United States should be in the business of destroying families and uprooting people who have lived here, albeit illegally, for a quarter century or longer.
"If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church," Gingrich said, "I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out."
Think again, Mr. Speaker. Separating families is exactly what President Barack Obama has been doing with a deportation juggernaut that has removed more than 1.2 million people in less than three years.
A new report by the Applied Research Center found that from January to June 2011, the Obama administration deported more than 46,000 parents with U.S.-born children. That figure represents 22% of all people deported in the first half of this year. Between 1998 and 2007, the last period for which similar figures are available, about 8% of those deported were parents of U.S.-citizen children.
According to the report, at least 5,100 U.S.-born children are stuck in the foster care system because their illegal immigrant parents were detained or deported.
When challenged by some of his debate opponents -- namely Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney, who are busy pandering to the right-wing fringe of their party -- Gingrich doubled down.
"I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century," he said. "And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, 'Let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.' "
Gingrich will get plenty of heat from conservative voters in the coming days. You can count on it. He must stand behind his comments. If he does that, maybe he can help Republicans see that they're not doing themselves, their party or their country any favors by trying to substitute pandering for a more meaningful discussion of how you secure the border.
Don't count on this happening in Congress, where Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, has proposed a dangerous and detrimental piece of legislation called "The Send Equipment for National Defense Act." The bill, according to The New York Times, "would require that 10% of certain equipment returned from Iraq -- like Humvees, night-vision equipment and unmanned aerial surveillance craft -- be made available to state and local agencies for border-security operations."
The proposed legislation is backed by the mayors of some cities on the border but opposed by others. It is another big step toward militarizing the region and blurring the line between civilian agencies and the military.
Poe insists that, even if his bill passed, the localities wouldn't have to accept the equipment.
In that case, cities and states should -- to borrow a phrase -- just say no. This isn't the right course of action. Protecting the border is a federal responsibility, and it ought to stay that way.
Deploying military equipment to the border won't do much in terms of bolstering security, but it will do a lot of harm. It'll hurt U.S.-Mexico relations and feed the narrative that the two countries are at war. Nativists already use that language when they talk about how the country is being "invaded."
Invaded by whom? By an army of Mexican workers clamoring to do our chores for us -- mow our lawns, clean our homes, raise our kids, etc.? That is an example of supply and demand, not an act of war.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.