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The Presidential Candidates’ Unofficial Immigration Debate in Florida

This past week, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were in Florida holding a presidential convention, and the combo effect of the Sunshine state being a hub for immigrants and the President’s recent decision on exempting certain young undocumented individuals from deportation turned this event into a breeding ground for an immigration debate. As it were, the two candidates advocated two very different positions, but the surprise lay in the fact that Romney’s stance on immigration was far more removed from the right-wing politics we had previously heard him voice. Clearly, Romney’s challenge was to shift away from the harsher talk of the Republican Party’s policies as he is competing for conservative votes, which in Florida includes a great portion of immigrants, particularly those of Cuban national origin who may be turned off by a candidate with an abrasive anti-immigrant stance even as they tend to favor the Republican agenda. For this reason, Mr. Romney has decided to distance himself from an adviser who told a British newspaper that Romney would probably rescind the directive Obama just put into action if he were to be elected in November so as to once again make the young and undocumented targets for deportation.

At the Florida convention, Romney took pains to keep a safe distance from the hot topic that is illegal immigration, instead trying to focus on the economic issues that affect us all, adapting his speech to the Hispanic and immigrant audience. “No election year speech can cover up the president’s job-killing policies that have led to 11% Hispanic unemployment and millions of Hispanics living in poverty,” said Romney, clearly taking a stab at the incumbent president. While the GOP candidate struck a more conciliatory tone toward illegal immigrants than he had ever before, he backed only limited steps to address the concerns of many Latino voters. Evidently, Romney is now starting to feel the heat as he scrambles to retract some of the strict policies he had previously voiced on immigration, attempting to soften them by using language specifically tailored to this multinational crowd that make up the voting core in the heart of an important swing state.

Wisely enough, Romney stayed clear of the type of language he used in the primaries about encouraging illegal immigrants to “self-deport” and he did not address Arizona’s controversial law, instead resorting to vague policies he allegedly subscribes to but of which we have seldom—if ever—heard him voice ever before. For instance, he said he would “staple a green card to the diplomas of immigrants who receive advanced degrees,” when in fact months ago he appeared very secure in his position against giving illegal immigrants legal status through education, instead merely seeming somewhat supportive of affording status to those who enlist in the U.S. military. Mr. Romney’s nearly 20 minute speech was met with lukewarm applause and moments of complete silence.

The Democratic camp, always considered being more in-tune with immigrants, received a warmer response from the audience than Mitt Romney did, with those in attendance at times standing to give ovations. The president highlighted his latest decision to stop enforcing the deportation of young motivated individuals who were brought into the country illegally as children by their relatives, saying he was “lifting the shadow of deportation” from people who deserved to stay in this country like any other productive member of society would. “It’s long past time that we gave them a sense of hope,” said Mr. Obama.

He threw Romney’s words right back at him when he exposed him in front of the audience by underscoring the promise Romney has made to veto the Dream Act. He also took a swing at the broad Republican base, lamenting that even those Republicans who once supported more expansive changes in immigration—even supporting the Dream Act itself—had now abandoned the issue. “Congress still needs to come up with a long-term immigration solution, rather than argue that we did this the wrong way or for the wrong reasons,” he added. “So to those who are saying Congress should be the one to fix this, absolutely. For those who say we should do this in a bipartisan fashion, absolutely.” Apart from highlighting his view on immigration and remarking his small yet significant achievement in this arena, Obama offered no new policies or ideas for how he would accomplish in a second term what he was not able to accomplish in his first term.

Although we would have liked to hear more concrete ideas as to how he will go about in making immigrant lives better, one thing stands true no matter how you look at it: we have a better chance of getting something constructive done in immigration with Obama than Romney. If his recent policy of limiting the deportation of innocent and productive undocumented immigrants is any indication, Obama’s heart and mind is rightly set; however, the same cannot be said of Mr. Romney when it comes to immigration. At the very least, with Barack Obama we know where we stand in immigration; however, with Mitt Romney—who is becoming notorious for flip-flopping from one side to the other, and even going back on his word—it’s a gamble.

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