Immigration, the hot-button issue early in the 2016 campaign, was discussed thoroughly during the first two Republican debates last Thursday. Bush, Rubio, Walker, Trump, and Kasich all took on the issue in the primetime debate. There is considerable progress made by Republicans in rhetoric and policy prescriptions which both bode well for comprehensive immigration reform talks in 2017.

Jeb Bush reiterated his sympathy for illegal immigrants arguing they “come here illegally” because “they have no other option and they want to provide for their family.” He endorsed legal status earned by paying a fine, waiting, and undergoing a background check. Twice he said the “broken immigration system … should be turned into an economic driver.”

Donald Trump argued that without his presence in the race the candidates wouldn’t be speaking about the issue. He then delivered his standard absurd and hateful argument that “killers, murders, crime, and drugs” are pouring across the border; “money goes out and drugs come in,” he said. He endorsed building a wall to stop the flow. In a recent blog post I summarized a survey of 25 immigration experts, not one of whom thought that securing the border would be the most effective way to reduce undocumented immigration. Trump is completely off-base with his rhetoric and policy prescriptions on illegal immigration.

However, at the end of his response he said, “I don’t mind having a big beautiful door in that wall so that people can come into this country legally.” While he’s fuzzy on details, even Trump recognizes the difference between legal and illegal immigration and the importance of a well-functioning legal system. If restrictionists even lose Donald Trump, who can they possibly win over?

John Kasich attributed Trump’s surge to the American people’s disgust with illegal immigration. But Kasich’s recent support for a new guest-worker program and for earned legal status shows he understands that reducing illegal immigration will take more than border security and deportation; it will require expanding legal immigration. Kasich is one of the best GOP candidates on the issue.

Marco Rubio, another top contender who supports expanded legal immigration, discussed how border security was not enough to stop illegal immigration and voiced support for mandatory E-Verify for employers to check the legal status of workers.. Last month Alex Nowrasteh and Jim Harper at the Cato Institute released a study showing that E-Verify would not deter undocumented immigration. Worse, it would create perverse economic effects by restricting labor markets.

Rubio, in direct support of reforming the immigration system, claimed that people “call [his] office who have been waiting for 15 years to come to the United States. And they’ve paid their fees, and they hired a lawyer, and they can’t get in. And they’re wondering, maybe they should come illegally.”

Scott Walker delivered the empty “I believe we need to secure the border” line. This standard GOP retort on immigration fails to take into account the money and resources already spent beefing up border security. More resources will not fix the broken immigration system.

Walker, who has recently flirted with endorsing immigration reductions but who once supported comprehensive immigration reform, said we should “go forward with the legal immigration system that gives priority to American working families and wages.” Walker’s reversal on the issue and lack of plan specifics leaves a lot of questions. Whether his quote means reducing the number of foreign workers entering the country is something the Niskanen Center will be monitoring as the election moves forward. But as we have discussed before on this blog, a strong case can be made that immigrant workers improve the U.S. economy and create jobs.

During the “Happy Hour” debate, the lower-tier candidates regurgitated their main talking points on immigration. Rick Perry stressed the need for a secure border. Rick Santorum argued in favor of reducing legal immigration by 25 percent, the most extreme position of the entire night. Bobby Jindal harped on assimilation, declaring that “immigration without assimilation is invasion.” Unfortunately Lindsey Graham, who is arguably the most pro-immigrant Republican candidate, was silent on the issue. Nearly all the candidates criticized President Obama’s 2014 executive orders on immigration.

In review, two Republicans candidates, Bush and Rubio, recognized how the broken legal immigration system has led to the 11-million undocumented immigrants in the country today. Kasich further staked out his position as a leader on immigration reform. And even Donald Trump, despite his questionable analysis of immigrants and crime, endorsed legal immigration.

The GOP will improve their electoral chances and the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform in 2017 as more candidates speak up in favor of immigration reform, earned legal status, guest-worker programs, and expanded legal immigration.

For more debate analysis from the Niskanen Center check out our blog post here.