“First of all, I’m compassionate,” said state senator Dan Patrick in his opening remarks at last night’s debate on immigration. “And I’m not tough.” When discussing illegal immigration, he continued, it is important to keep in mind that most unauthorized immigrants are the victims of a broken system that “forces people to come to this country illegally,” a broken system for which Washington politicians should take most of the blame.

It would have been an unremarkable opening, if not for the source. Prior to March 4, when he won 41 percent of the vote in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor, Patrick would have scoffed at anyone who suggested he wasn’t tough on the issue. He was going out of his way to prove that he was tougher than the other candidates in the primary, like Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who had, as a state representative, voted for the Texas DREAM Act in 2001. For months, Patrick was stumping around the state warning about an “illegal invasion”, and promoting the policies he would pursue in order to stop it. His rhetoric on the subject was so consistently extreme that other Republicans have apparently reached out to rein him in. The debate itself had been arranged after San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro rebuked him on Twitter, after which both men agreed to a pistols-at-high-noon showdown.

Castro, of course, pointed this out in his own opening statement. “We’re about to celebrate San Jacinto Day, but Texas is not being ‘invaded’ by Mexico,” he said. Republicans who indulge in such rhetoric, he continued, are taking a divisive and political approach that is out of step with the Texas GOP’s historically temperate approach to the subject and that specifically offends Hispanics. And Patrick, Castro said pointedly, was a case in point: “You’ve been part of the problem. It surprises me that you’re saying you’re not tough.”

Castro had, however, clearly anticipated that Patrick would strike a softer tone in the debate than he has on the campaign trail, and prepared some soundbites to that effect—that although Patrick had been “huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf,” now he was “tiptoeing around like Little Red Riding Hood.” Patrick, for his part, denied everything, adopted an injured tone, and accused Castro of trying to play politics. It was an awkward accusation, since Castro isn’t running for office this year, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. “I don’t know if you’re running for vice-president or what you’re running for,” Patrick said.

Both were protesting too much. Over the next hour they did, occasionally, touch on policy issues, including the Texas DREAM Act, which Patrick has vowed to repeal as lieutenant governor. It was clear, however, that both came to the discussion with a political agenda. Castro argued that Texas’s pragmatic approach to illegal immigration reflects the state’s pro-business tradition—a tradition that includes Republicans like George W. Bush and Rick Perry, he said, but also Democrats like Ann Richards and, presumably, Julián Castro. Patrick, meanwhile, tried to cast immigration as a pro-life issue. He warned that some 55,000 “anchor babies” were born in the United States last year, but also said that if a pregnant woman crossed the border illegally, “I want her to have that Hispanic child.” The mayor, he meant, would let the woman in question make that decision herself. (Castro seemed perplexed by this turn, although he conceded the point.)

In other words, this was clearly a political debate—and it was inevitably so. The fact is that neither Castro nor Patrick has a direct role in determining American immigration laws or in achieving border security. That being the case, Patrick’s opening remarks told us everything we needed to know about the politics of illegal immigration circa 2014. Fuming about an “Illegal invasion” may be a good way to win a Republican primary. But even Patrick, who pushed that perspective so heavily before the March 4 primary, is apparently aware that Texans, as a group, reject such divisive rhetoric.

( Image via Flickr )