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GOPers try substance over style to challenge Trump on immigration

Trump’s fiery rhetoric on immigration launched his campaign to the top of the polls and lurched the GOP field even further to the right at a lightning speed.

Donald Trump’s fiery rhetoric on immigration launched his presidential campaign to the top of the polls and lurched the Republican field even further to the right at a lightning speed. But while the real estate mogul has succeeded in style, his GOP competitors came out swinging Wednesday with substance, using the second debate of the 2016 season to dog-pile on what the party’s front-runner is getting wrong about immigration.

The wall that Trump wants to Mexico to build at the border? Too expensive. The plan to deport the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. within two years? Impossible. End birthright citizenship by re-writing the 14th Amendment? Unrealistic.

Once again Trump was front and center in the debate, railing against the “bad dudes” that he says he will deport on his first day in office, if he's elected. For nearly three months Trump has lobbed personal attacks on immigration against his fellow Republican presidential hopefuls — some of whom have pushed back as the “anti-Trump” to only measured success.

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But when Jeb Bush was offered a chance to confront Trump, who once suggested that his Mexican-American wife made him soft on immigration, the former Florida governor took the bait. 

“To subject my wife in the middle of a raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate and I hope you apologize for that,” Bush said. 

“Why don’t you apologize to her right now?”

More candidates got to call out The Donald. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took a shot at the billionaire’s deportation plan and proposed timeline (“For 1,500 people a day to be deported — every day — for two years, is an undertaking that almost none of us could accomplish giving the current levels of funding and the current level of law enforcement officers”). Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina knocked on Trump’s plan for birthright citizenship (“You can't just wave your hands and say 'the 14th Amendment is gonna go away'").

The pushback to Trump’s immigration proposals could prove vital come the general election for a Republican Party that has already decided it must make inroads with Hispanics. The latest MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll shows that if the election were held today, Trump would lose the Latino vote to any Democratic candidate by disastrous margins — even worse than Mitt Romney’s resounding loss among Latino voters in 2012.

Instead the candidates vied to differentiate themselves on where they landed in the gaping divide between supporting a pathway to citizenship and looking to limit even legal immigrations.

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All candidates agree that “amnesty” is a four-letter word for conservatives (though don’t tell them about Ronald Reagan’s legacy on immigration). Most all candidates agree that boosting resources at the border should be a priority. But few have reached a consensus on how to deal with the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants who currently live in the U.S.

“A majority of the men and women on this stage have previously embraced amnesty,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said.

On one end of the spectrum, there’s Trump who says all 11 million should be deported. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum suggested that the 40% of unauthorized immigrants who overstayed their visas are low-hanging fruit for deportation ("You can solve half the problem by telling them to return to their home country,” he said Wednesday.) Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson said those with "pristine records" should be offered guest worker programs in agriculture.

"And they have a six-month period to do that. If they don't do it within that time period, then they become illegal, and as illegals, they will be treated as such," Carson said.

Others, like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said the U.S. can’t support mass deportations, but could instead benefit from millions of workers being brought aboveboard and contributing to taxes and social security.

“We're going to need more legal immigration,” Graham said. “Let's just make it logical. Let's pick people from all over the world on our terms, not just somebody from Mexico.”

Still candidates stressed that assimilation — namely English proficiency — was vital to any immigration plan. 

“We have to have assimilation to have a country,” Trump said after being called out for criticizing Bush for speaking Spanish along the campaign trail. “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.”

In a heated exchange during the undercard debate of lower-tier candidates, Graham pushed back against Santorum’s plan, saying it never won support in Congress. 

“The people who are hurt the most by illegal immigration are Hispanics,” Santorum said. 

"In my world, Hispanics are Americans," Graham interrupted.