Michele Bachmann, struggling to regain a foothold in the GOP presidential race, opened a hard new front Saturday on immigration, signing a pledge to push to complete a fence along the entire Mexican border by 2013 and saying she would consider allowing federal agents to conduct raids to find illegal immigrants.
"That will be job No. 1," Bachmann said of the fence. "And it will be every mile, it will be every yard, it will be every foot, it will be every inch of that border, because that portion you fail to secure is the highway into the United States."
Bachmann became the first major presidential candidate to sign a pledge by the Americans for Securing the Border, an advocacy group, that she would support constructing a double fence along the length of the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of 2013.
Illegal immigration has became a pivotal issue in the Republican contest, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry facing vocal criticism for his longtime support of in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants.
Bachmann prefaced her remarks to about 100 people at the historic Hotel Pattee here in Perry, Iowa, by saying that Americans must have a discussion about ending illegal immigration and that doing so was not racist.
"It's OK to talk about this subject. Sometimes we're told it's not OK to talk about illegal immigration, that somehow that means we're prejudiced or we're bigoted or we're biased against Hispanics or that we don't love people that are Hispanic," she said. "That's not what I hear from the people of Iowa. I don't hear people of Iowa that are racist or bigoted in their remarks. What I hear from the people of Iowa is they are tired of paying for other people's items, they are tired of paying for illegal immigration."
Bachmann argued that a porous border is a national security threat, and she cited a report that tens of thousands of those caught trying to enter the nation illegally were from nations other than Mexico.
"Fifty-nine thousand this year came across the border … from Yemen, from Syria. These are nations that are state sponsors of terror. They're coming into our country," she said.
Yemen is not on the United States' list of state sponsors of terrorism, according to the State Department. Four nations are on that list — Cuba, Syria, Iran and Sudan.
Bachmann also used a litany of statistics to argue that illegal immigration was a national drain. She asserted that illegal immigrants were more likely to be high school dropouts and that households headed by those who do not obtain high school degrees and who receive welfare drain the nation's coffers. She said illegal immigrants cost the federal, state and local governments $113 billion annually, a figure she said came from the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Estimates about the cost of illegal immigration vary widely, ranging from a few billion dollars annually to much larger figures. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that state and local governments incur costs because of illegal immigrants, but the effect was probably "modest," and that there was no consensus on how to determine a national cost.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform is controversial; the Southern Poverty Law Center says the organization's leaders have ties to white supremacist groups.
A man in the audience asked why Bachmann castigates those who are high school dropouts as a drain on society but then fights in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.
"Why would you choose to punish these kids who came here when they were young, no choice of their own?" asked Perry resident Eddie Diaz, 32.
Bachmann said that she was not punishing them, but rather opposed giving special advantages to lawbreakers.
"When people break the law …" Bachmann said.
Diaz interrupted, "They did not break the law."
The two continued to repeat those lines until Bachmann said, "People who come into the country break the law. That's an indisputable fact. When someone comes into the country illegally, that is breaking the law…. You're entitled to your opinion."