DES MOINES, Dec. 4 — If there is one issue that has challenged presidential candidates of both parties in Iowa this year, it is immigration, and the Democratic contenders were confronted with it again Tuesday, in a provocative way. Should American citizens, they were asked, turn in someone they know to be an illegal immigrant?
In the end, the answer from most of the candidates was no. But the question, posed in various forms during a two-hour debate over National Public Radio, had the candidates struggling anew with a topic looming large both in the Iowa caucuses next month and in the general election.
Tracking down illegal immigrants, the candidates said, is the job of the government, not civilians. But the moderators pressed the issue, pointing to what they suggested were inconsistencies.
After Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said she did not think that civilians should be “enforcing the broken laws of our federal immigration system,” Steve Inskeep of NPR asked her, “If a citizen witnessed some other kind of crime, wouldn’t you want them to report it?”
“It’s a very clever question, Steve,” Mrs. Clinton replied, “but I think it really begs the question. What we’re looking at here is 12 to 14 million people — they live in our neighborhoods, they take care of our elderly, they probably made the beds in the hotels that some of us stayed in last night. They are embedded in our society. If we want to listen to the demagogues and the calls for us to begin to try to round up people and turn every American into a suspicious vigilante, I think we will do graver harm to the fabric of our nation than any kind of person-by-person reporting of someone who might be here illegally.”
Senator Barack Obama responded to the question by saying that “we are not going to deputize a whole bunch of American citizens to start grabbing people or turning them in.”
Representative Dennis J. Kucinich said, “We don’t encourage vigilantism in this country.”
Mr. Inskeep repeatedly asked former Senator John Edwards whether workers in the country illegally were driving down wages.
“Well,” Mr. Edwards said, “I think what the studies show is there are a lot of things driving down wages in the United States of America.”
Mr. Obama answered more directly. “I believe that there are circumstances where, in fact, illegal immigrants are driving down wages,” he said, but added: “The question is, How do we fix it? Because oftentimes, when it’s posed that way, then the thinking is that somehow we have to pit low-wage American workers versus low-wage immigrant workers.”
Senator Christopher J. Dodd responded to another question by suggesting that Americans be penalized for knowingly hiring nannies or other domestic workers here illegally.
“People who knowingly hire undocumented workers I think need to be held accountable to a far higher degree of penalties — civil and possibly criminal,” Mr. Dodd said.
The debate, the first this year in which the candidates did not address television cameras, featured not only questions from the moderators but also taped queries from listeners, and among the other topics was Iran.
The Democratic candidates all assailed President Bush for saying he still considered Iran a threat despite a new National Intelligence Estimate concluding that the Iranians halted their pursuit of nuclear weapons in 2003. But Mrs. Clinton also came under attack, for having voted in favor of a Senate resolution that declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
Mrs. Clinton stood by the vote, arguing that the resolution had bolstered a tough diplomatic approach that had already led to changes in Iran’s behavior. “None of us is advocating a rush to war,” she said, adding that “our goals are the same: diplomatic engagement with Iran.”
Her opponents said the vote had emboldened Mr. Bush to take the country to war against Tehran, and expressed incredulity at her position.
“Declaring a military group sponsored by the state of Iran a terrorist organization, that’s supposed to be diplomacy?” Mr. Edwards said. “This has to be considered in the context that Senator Clinton has said she agrees with George Bush terminology that we’re in a global war on terror.”
To that, Mrs. Clinton replied, “I understand politics, and I understand making outlandish political charges, but this really goes way too far.”