An audience member asked the Republican presidential candidates whether they supported providing an education to the children of illegal immigrants. One candidate said he would and spoke eloquently about the deeper problems that rendered honorable, decent people illegal; the other advocated an open border.

We've come a long way since 1980.

Ever since Rick Perry's GOP rivals began lambasting him for signing a bill granting undocumented immigrant children in-state tuition at Texas universities, immigration has emerged as a key litmus test for verifying the conservative credentials of the men and women seeking the Republican nomination. Perry's poll numbers began to decline after he forcefully defended the bill at a debate, and while there is not a clear cause and effect between the two prospective voters consistently voiced concerns about his immigration record.

Michele Bachmann rebutted Perry's comment that it doesn't make any difference what the sound of your last name is, that's the American way with a radio spot announcing that the American way is not to give taxpayer subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally. Former senator Rick Santorum suggested that Perry's support for the bill was a cynical political calculation meant to attract illegal -- I mean Latino -- voters. Every candidate except for Perry has advocated building a fence that spans the entire Mexican-American border, and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain suggested electrifying the fence and deploying troops with real guns and real bullets to police the border.

The acrimony continued during Tuesday night's debate as Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney sparred over their respective records. Perry brought up reports that Romney had employed undocumented immigrants to clean his lawn and called Romney touting his immigration record as the height of hypocrisy. After a testy exchange, Romney shot back that If there's someone who has a record as governor with regards to illegal immigration who doesn't stand up to muster, it's you, not me.

A Generation Ago

Now contrast that with the responses George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan gave when an audience member asked about the children of undocumented immigrants attending public schools. Immigration is essentially a question of resources and jobs, and in 1980 America was contending with rising unemployment and a weak labor market. But rather than inveigh against immigrants stealing jobs, Bush said immigrants should be entitled to the same benefits as other Americans.

I'd like to see something done about the alien problem that would be so sensitive and so understanding about labor needs and human needs that that problem wouldn't come up, Bush said. But today if those people are here I would reluctantly say I think they would get whatever it is that their, what the society is giving to their neighbors.

Bush went on to describe the underlying issues with a fair amount of compassion.

We're creating a whole society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law and secondly we're exacerbating relations with Mexico, he said. The answer to your question is much more fundamental than whether they attend Houston schools it seems to me. If they're living here I don't want to see a whole bunch of 6 and 8 year old kids being totally uneducated and made to feel they're living outside the law. Let's address ourselves to the fundamentals. These are good people, strong people; part of my family is a Mexican.

Reagan also sounded sympathetic, contrasting our size and our power with soaring unemployment in Mexico.

Rather than..talking about putting up a fence why don't we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible to come here legally with a work permit and then while they're working and earning here they pay taxes here and when they want to go back they can go back, Reagan said. Open the border both ways by understanding their problems.

You can contact the reporter at j.white@ibtimes.com