Congressional candidates Doug Collins and Martha Zoller squared off over illegal immigration in an Atlanta Press Club debate Thursday, with just five days to go before their Republican runoff for Georgia's new Ninth District.
Also on Thursday, Zoller, a former radio talk show host from Gainesville, announced she had picked up the endorsement of Sadie Fields, former head of the Christian Coalition of Georgia and Georgia Christian Alliance.
During the half-hour debate Thursday at Georgia Public Broadcasting, one of the panelists asked what the candidates thought of the Obama administration's new immigration policy, which debuted this week.
The policy offers a two-year reprieve from deportation to certain illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children, are enrolled in school or have graduated and have not committed serious crimes. Those who receive "deferred action" may also get permission to work in the U.S. for two years. Thousands of immigrants across the country started applying for these benefits Wednesday.
Zoller said she disagreed with how the president went about making the changes, referring to the White House as "an out-of-control executive branch that thinks they can fix everything through executive order."
"I think it's a good policy if we actually went through the Congress and went through the right process where it was passed in the House and the Senate, went through conference committee and was debated," she said. "But it is not a good policy as an executive order."
In an interview about that policy after the debate, Zoller said: "I'm not going to say what I would vote for or not vote for until I actually see the legislation, but I do support overhauling the immigration system and I do believe the system is broken."
Collins, a state legislator from Gainesville, took a different position during the debate.
"I don't agree that it would be a good policy even if it did go through Congress," he said. "If it did go through Congress, then we are picking both winners and losers in our immigration policy. That is what got us into the situation we are at right now."
Collins argued for overhauling the nation's immigration policy and said the U.S. should maintain a guest worker program for agricultural workers. Both he and Zoller said the nation needs to focus on securing its borders. Zoller added she wants to make changes to prevent foreigners from overstaying their visas.
The candidates also clashed over abortion, civil unions for gay couples and Georgia's failed transportation sales tax referendum. At times, the debate became testy. Collins repeatedly accused Zoller of staking out contradictory positions on public policy issues. Zoller referred to Collins as "desperate" and as a "professional politician."
Whoever prevails in the Aug. 21 runoff will face Jody Cooley, a Democrat, in the Nov. 6 general election. Cooley is an attorney from Gainesville. The Ninth District includes 17 counties and parts of three others, including Clarke, Forsyth and Pickens.
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