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Candidates Must Answer Key Question: As President, What Would You Do About the 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants in U.S. Today?
Last night’s Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library featured an important discussion prompted by Noticiero Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart. The dominant line from GOP 2012 candidates on immigration these days is: we need to get tough on immigrants in a number of ways, and put off any discussion about legalization or visa reforms until the border is “finally” secure. Last night, Díaz-Balart challenged some of the candidates to move beyond their vacuous “border security first” talking point, and get concrete about what conditions would prompt them to declare the border “secure,” and what they would do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country at that point. Needless to say, there was a lot of fumbling and not a lot of straight answers from most of the candidates.
Their answers also confirmed what we have been saying for some time – that the current GOP field has strayed far from President Reagan’s centrist, problem-solving approach when it comes to the issue of immigration, and this simple fact will have serious consequences for GOP outreach to Latino voters in the general election. Spanish-language media coverage of last night’s debate and recent polling both raise some uncomfortable truths for the Republican field: 1) Latino voters see the “border first” plan for what it is—a political sound bite and excuse for more enforcement only, not a comprehensive solution; and 2) Latino voters really do want to know what the candidates’ plans are to deal with undocumented immigrants. Instead of talking straight, most of the Republicans seem intent on walking a rhetorical tightrope to present a more friendly image to Latino voters, while not changing their actual policy positions to avoid inciting right-wing primary voters.
Indicative of this is the Spanish language coverage of last night’s debate. In La Opinion, the largest Spanish language daily newspaper in the country, the lead article was unequivocal in criticizing the non-answers of the GOP field on immigration. Entitled “None of the Republican Candidates Want to Talk About the Legalization of the 11 Million Undocumented in the Country,” Antonieta Cadiz’s article noted that yesterday’s debate made something crystal clear (translated), “none of the Republican candidates want to talk about the possibility of legalizing the 11 million undocumented (immigrants) currently in the country…The candidates instead ‘shielded’ themselves with the ‘secure the border first’ argument.”
June 2011 polling from Latino Decisions and impreMedia shows why this is such a problem for the GOP. When asked, “When you hear Republicans say that immigration reform must wait until the border is secure, do you think that is a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed, OR they are using that as an excuse to block action on immigration reform?” by a 55% – 30% margin, Latino voters said GOP candidates are “Using it to block action” on immigration reform instead of representing a “Legitimate concern.” These voters know that border security is already in place. But what hasn’t been tackled is the rest of reform, including the status of 11 million immigrants in the country without papers. The same poll also found that by a 65% – 19% margin, Latino voters trust President Obama and Democrats more “to make the right decisions when it comes to immigration policy” compared with Republicans.
Notably, the two Republican contenders leading in the polls, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) and Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA), escaped Díaz-Balart’s follow-up questioning regarding what specifically they would do with the undocumented population in the nation, provided the border was secured to their satisfaction. Both Gov. Perry and Gov. Romney waxed poetic about border security but ducked the elephant in the room – the 11 million undocumented immigrants whose status will not be resolved by building a fence of any size. Romney went even further – no doubt to tweak Perry who has supported in-state tuition for undocumented kids who grew up in Texas – by suggesting that allowing talented young people who grew up in America and have no papers through no fault of their own to go to school is a magnet for illegal immigration. Puh-leeze.
Interestingly, the only candidate to answer the question directly was Newt Gingrich, who followed up nods to border security and assimilation with this statement: “And then find a way to deal with folks who are already here, some of whom, frankly, have been here 25 years, are married with kids, live in our local neighborhood, go to our church. It’s got to be done in a much more humane way than thinking that to automatically deport millions of people.”
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The leading candidates for the GOP nomination may have been standing on Ronald Reagan’s stage but they did not stand in his shoes. Reagan supported legalization, immigration and a welcoming America. The top-tier 2012 GOP candidates do not. It’s pure fantasy to think the Party can appeal to Latino voters simply by changing their tone on immigration, and not actually changing their positions.” And it’s hard to imagine how they reach the threshold of 40% of the Latino vote they need to re-take the White House with that approach.”
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