In their latest debate, Republicans spar over refugees and undocumented immigrants

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Top Republican candidates at the Iowa presidential debate

Republican US presidential candidates, from left, Dr. Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Marco Rubio at the debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 28, 2016. 

Jim Young/Reuters

Donald Trump didn’t attend Thursday night's Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa, which meant he wasn’t around to advocate a blanket ban on Muslim immigrants.

Ben Carson seemed happy to take his place, however. “If you’ve got 10 people coming to your house, and you know one of them is a terrorist, you’re probably going to keep them all out,” he said, referring to the alleged security threat posed by Syrian refugees.

That was how Carson answered a question about the economy from a Latina entrepreneur — a question that had nothing to do with Muslims or terrorism.

Carson might not have realized that Iowa is home to America’s longest standing mosque. It’s also a state that has historically welcomed refugees. In 1975, in the wake of the Vietnam War, Iowa was the first state to welcome Vietnamese refugees. The sizeable population descended from immigrants in Iowa makes the subject an important part of the presidential race there.

Carson’s comments notwithstanding, the January 28 Republican debate was cooler-headed and more analytical than past debates. Joe Enriquez Henry, who represents Latino voters as the vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said that “without Trump in the room, that allowed for a more thorough discussion — and analyzing the positions of those candidates.”

Henry added that discussions of immigration policy seemed more candid and direct. For example, Jeb Bush criticized Marco Rubio for supporting a “pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants in 2013, only to withdraw that support during his campaign.

“What I got out of that was, Bush was stating that he was for legal status [for undocumented immigrants]. But I did not hear that from Rubio or [Ted] Cruz or any of the other candidates.”

According to Henry, the debate made some of Iowa’s conservative Latino voters more comfortable with Republican candidates. That could also make them more likely to attend the state caucuses on Monday.

Of course, none of this necessarily means that the shifting immigration policies of Republican candidates will satisfy voters. Henry said Republican candidates often failed to distinguish between very different kinds of immigrants — for example, refugees and undocumented immigrants.

Henry added: “I think they were speaking to their majority constituency, who would rather view immigrants as those people coming from Mexico and Central America, without looking at the bigger picture.”

Iowa’s caucuses begins at 7 p.m. on Monday. If all goes according to plan, the winner will be announced a few hours later.