22616101293_3fdd5a5acf_bA decade ago, we were surprised to hear a single immigration question throughout the entirety of the presidential debates. No longer. Immigration is a top-tier issue. Candidates are trying to formulate complex positions on the fly.

The battering that Marco Rubio took on immigration at the hands of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul in the December 15 presidential debate will have profound implications for the early primaries.  Cruz repeatedly highlighted Rubio’s weak votes on immigration (and other issues) and, in particular, his support for various elements in the ‘Gang of 8 Bill.’  Cruz and Paul repeatedly went after Rubio while Cruz stated in the most emphatic manner possible that he would never support legalization or amnesty in any form proposed to date. Cruz: “I would enforce the law.” (Still, Cruz embraces again the legal/illegal dichotomy – “illegal bad/legal good.”   This dichotomy entails the throwaway line “we can all agree that we should open our doors widely to legal immigrants” as a form of political cover against the charge of being ‘anti-immigration.’ Jeb Bush uses a modified form of this argument to suggest we can control illegal immigration by letting in millions more legally.) At times, Rubio seemed unnerved as he seemed to recognize the vulnerability of his past flirtation with Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin. Meanwhile, Cruz is positioning himself as a defender of American workers by co-sponsoring with Jeff Sessions a bill to tighten up the H-1B process.

In other action, Trump hammers Bush on his “act of love” comment. Bush bewilderingly says we can’t cut Syrian refugee admissions for our security because we can’t offend Muslim’s worldwide. Christie remains very strong on the question of freezing Syrian refugee admissions.

So… primaries through Super Tuesday – especially Florida – are looking more and more interesting. But let’s be clear at this point: the immigration issue is emerging as THE defining issue in this campaign, ignited now by the battles between Trump and Bush, and Cruz and Rubio. The immigration debate is coming of age. The public is yearning for a candidate that will talk about a broader freeze on overall immigration. At a minimum, whoever sits behind the “Big Desk” in 2017 will have to have addressed the growing public concern about how immigration has eroded the nation’s sense of physical and economic security.