Over the weekend, Republican presidential hopefuls Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann made it clear that they were willing to increase their anti-immigration rhetoric in order to court voters.  In the process, both confused the right to free speech with the responsibility of free speech, turning what should have been a debate on immigration policy into cheap and insensitive anti-immigrant rhetoric.

At rallies in Tennessee on Saturday, Herman Cain proposed that we “build an electrified fence” to keep out undocumented immigrants, and later, that we use “real guns and real bullets” to kill those people seeking to cross illegally. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Cain defended his insensitive comments by claiming that it’s “insensitive for [undocumented immigrants] to be killing our citizens, killing our border agents.” The next day, Cain said he was “only joking,” and that America needed a sense of humor.

Michele Bachmann, relying on discredited numbers from an immigration restrictionist group, told an Iowa audience that we need to build a border fence for matters of economic and national security, that illegal immigrants today weren’t like her Norwegian forebears who promised to protect the Constitution, and that it was time to take a stand for good old fashioned American values—implying that today’s immigrants don’t have that same regard for American values and are the lesser for it.

Bachmann insulated her listeners from any discomfort by saying that she was talking about policy, not people.

“It’s OK to talk about this issue,” said Bachmannn. “Some say it’s not OK to talk about this subject because that somehow means we are prejudiced or bigoted or biased against Hispanics. That’s not what I hear form the people of Iowa. They are tired of paying for other people.”

But a legitimate policy issue—what to do about illegal immigration—doesn’t mean that you can say anything you like. It’s not “OK” to talk about an issue in a way that inflames prejudice or suggests that human life is cheap.  It’s not “OK” to use blatantly misleading facts to scare people into feeling like their very lives or livelihoods are threatened.

In other words, the Bachmann/Cain remarks of the weekend were just the latest example in how degraded the debate over immigration has become. It may be wishful thinking to say that candidates for public office have a responsibility to do more than pander to the lowest common denominator, but they do. And they have a responsibility not to feed anti-immigrant sentiment by justifying their remarks as either a joke or a defense of American values.

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