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Updated Jul 21, 2014 - 7:41 pm

Arizona governor hopefuls debate hot-button issues

(Twitter Photo/@JonesForGov)

PHOENIX -- Illegal immigration took center stage Monday during a televised debate between six Republican candidates for Arizona governor.

Although the candidates discussed other topics that included education and the economy, illegal immigration drew the most pointed comments from them during the hour-long debate. The candidates at the debate were Ken Bennett, Doug Ducey, Christine Jones, Frank Riggs, Scott Smith and Andrew Thomas.

For example, Arizona Horizon host Ted Simons asked candidates why the Arizona economy has struggled to recover since the collapse of 2008.

Thomas, the former Maricopa County attorney, said the answer is obvious: "These jobs are being taken by people who are coming into the country both legally and illegally."

Riggs, a supporter of strict illegal immigration measures such as SB1070, disagreed. A tense exchange between Riggs, a former U.S. congressman, and Thomas ensued.

"To constantly blame illegal immigrants for every challenge that we have as a state is absolutely irresponsible," Riggs said.

The statewide and national debate over illegal immigration came to a head last month when the federal government began housing in a Nogales, Arizona, facility young immigrant children who had crossed the border alone and illegally into Texas. State officials who say Arizona has its own illegal immigration problems criticized the move and demanded the federal government stop transferring the children from Texas to Nogales.

The U.S. Border Patrol has since stopped sending children to Nogales because of a steep fall in the number of children border crossers and the opening of a new holding facility in McAllen, Texas.

Asked at the debate, which was broadcast on KAET Channel 8, what they would do to combat illegal immigration, the candidates had varying plans.

Ducey, the state treasurer, said he would reprioritize public safety resources and allocate them to the border, readjusting the state Department of Public Safety budget while also considering privatizing the state lottery to pay for more enforcement.

"I'm for all of the above and whatever it takes as a governor," Ducey said.

Jones, a former Internet company executive, said she would deploy National Guard troops to the border and finish building fences in "strategic" areas of the border.

"We're not talking about shutting the border. We're talking about understanding who's coming and going. Mexico is our single largest trading partner," she said.

Riggs and Bennett, the secretary of state, said they would assign local police to help stop illegal immigration. Bennett said he would also invest in detection devices and push for more employer sanctions.

But Smith cautioned his colleagues of the costs and logistics of such plans. Gov. Jan Brewer, also a Republican, has taken every step she could to stop illegal immigration, but that it is the federal government's duty to secure the border, he said.

"Nobody here is talking reality," Smith said.

One thing the candidates shared in common: a desire to attract more companies and jobs to Arizona. The candidates said the state needs to simplify its tax code and make it easier to conduct business.

They sparred on education matters, however.

Riggs said he would use executive powers to repeal Common Core standards on his first day in office. Common Core standards aim to focus learning on comprehension and real-life examples and were designed by a national, bipartisan group of governors and education leaders to better prepare students for college and the job market.

Jones said she opposes the standards.

"I'm opposed for a number of reasons. Especially when you're a teacher and you're in the classroom and a disproportionately large portion of your classroom is dedicated to following those standards," Jones said.

But Smith said the Common Core debate had become political and not about education, although he did express concern over implementation of the standards. "We don't talk about children," he said.

The debate was sponsored by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

The primary election will be held Aug. 26. The winner will go up against Democrat Fred DuVal in the November general election. Brewer, who cannot seek a third term, has not endorsed a candidate yet.

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