President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney sparred over immigration policy on Tuesday for the first time during the course of their debates, and the sparks did fly.
Obama raked Romney over the coals for the tough positions he adopted earlier in the campaign. Romney tried to soften his hardliner image, but stuck to many of the conservative policies he adopted during the primaries. He also tried holding the president to account over his pledge to pass a comprehensive reform bill in his first term.
Speaking for the topic in front of the largest TV audience he has faced yet, Romney framed himself as a problem solver who could accomplish what Obama could not in his first term: a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
"I'll get it done. I'll get it done. First year," Romney pledged.
"My view is that this president should have honored his promise to do as he said," he added.
Obama reiterated his support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. That's something Romney made clear he does not support when he said he doesn't favor "amnesty" for those in the country illegally. Obama lamented that he was not able to pass a bill during his first term due to resistance from Republicans in Congress.
"This used to be a bipartisan issue," he said.
Obama also slammed Romney for walking a tightrope between the muscular positions he emphasized during the GOP primary and his current language.
Romney's vision of "comprehensive immigration reform" differs significantly from what Obama supports. The president, for example, called out Romney for backing "self-deportation," a philosophy that involves passing tough immigration enforcement laws that would in turn push undocumented immigrants to leave the country on their own.
"[It's] making life so miserable on folks that they'll leave," Obama said.
Obama invoked his one time foe George W. Bush, propping him up as an example of how Republicans have moved to the right on culturally-sensitive issues such as immigration.
"George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn't call for self-deportation," the president said.
Romney meanwhile sought to soften the blow of his "self-deportation" policy (albeit with an unfortunate use of the *i-word*) without walking away from it.
"Self-deportation says 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 people make their own choice," he said. I'm not in favor of rounding up people and taking them out of this country."
But Obama would not let him go. Romney (rightly) corrected Obama for saying that he described Arizona's tough SB 1070 immigration law as a "model" for the nation. But Obama (also rightly) fired back that Romney supports national "self-deportation" policies that serve as the basis of the Arizona law.
"His top adviser on immigration [Kris Kobach] is the guy who designed the Arizona law, the entirety of it; not E-Verify, the whole thing," Obama said. "That's his policy. And it's a bad policy. And it won't help us grow."
Another notable exchange came over the DREAM Act, the long-stalled bill that would grant a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought here at a young age.
Romney appeared to back a modified version of the DREAM Act that would include a path to permanent residency – not a special path to citizenship – for DREAMers. The Republican candidate has voiced support for such a proposal for youth who join the military. But tonight, he used even more general language.
"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," he said.
But again, Obama resurfaced Romney's past position on the DREAM Act: That he would veto the current version.
"Governor Romney just said he wants to help those young people too, but during the Republican primary, he said, 'I will veto the DREAM Act,'" Obama said. "It's very hard for Republicans in Congress to support comprehensive immigration reform; if their standard bearer has said that, this is not something I'm interested in supporting."
At the end of the day, Romney was at his strongest when holding Obama accountable for his promise that he would bring up a comprehensive immigration reform bill in his first year.
But time and again, Obama was able to diffuse Romney's arguments. Essentially the president constantly asked Romney this: How could you criticize me for not passing policies that you do not support?
That line of argument made Romney's tightrope walk tough to pull off.