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Mexican fathers and deported grandmothers

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voz y votoNote: America’s Voice’s Maribel Hastings, who wrote this post, is in Florida covering the GOP primary. She’ll be filing regular reports on the campaign as part of our “Voz Y Voto 2012” series.

MIAMI – Maybe someone told Mitt Romney he’d have to make a serious effort to attract Latino voters, especially on the eve of the Republican primary in Florida. Whatever the cause, the former Massachusetts governor, who has some of the most extreme positions on immigration of anyone in the field, decided that it was time to take advantage of his Mexican roots: “I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico,” the candidate said at one point in last night’s debate in Jacksonville, Florida.

They can try to run from it like a vampire from a cross, but the Republican contenders haven’t been able to hide from having to talk about immigration. Thursday’s debate, hosted by CNN and the Hispanic Leadership Network (HLN) in advance of the Republican primary in Florida on January 31st, kicked off with the topic of immigration—and with a juicy back-and-forth between Romney and ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who had labeled the former governor “anti-immigrant” in a radio ad that was taken off the airwaves under pressure from Hispanic Republican leaders.

Gingrich said again last night that of all four remaining Republican candidates, Romney is the most anti-immigrant. Romney called this “inexcusable” and “repulsive” later hitting Gingrich with the following declaration: “Mr. Speaker: I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico.”

Romney’s father, George, was born in Mexico, where his parents lived in a settlement of Mormons who’d fled persecution in the United States. However, George Romney was born a U.S. citizen due to the nationality of his parents, and returned to the United States when he was five years old.

On Wednesday, at a Univision.com forum, anchor Jorge Ramos asked Romney if he considered himself Mexican-American or would qualify as the first Hispanic president (if elected, obviously). Romney said, half joking, “I would I would love to be able to convince people of that, particularly in a Florida primary…but I think that might be disingenuous on my part.”

But from Wednesday to Thursday, apparently, someone convinced Romney that it wouldn’t be too much for him to put his Mexican roots on the table—especially if he wins the nomination and has to start pursuing Hispanic voters who don’t live between the Florida coasts.

Nonetheless, Gingrich didn’t let go of his criticism of Romney’s “self-deportation” plan—which he has called an “Obama-level fantasy,” insisting that it’s unrealistic to believe that people who’ve lived in the United States for decades, like grandmothers and grandfathers, will deport themselves or get deported. People have to be “realistic” and show a certain level of “humanity,” Gingrich declared.

But Romney parried the attack, saying that “our problem isn’t 11 million grandmothers” but 11 million undocumented immigrants—although ultimately, he was able to offer neither a solution nor common sense to the immigration issue. The candidates may look obligated to talk about it, but they continue to avoid it.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.