Tom Barry, author of Border Wars and director of the TransBorder Project at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC., comments on Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney’s recent clash over immigration in a CNN Republican debate in Florida. He blogs at Border Lines.
Florida is mired in a swamp of housing foreclosures and in a stagnant economy.
But last week it was the state’s demographics – the growing Latino population, constituting 70% of the voters in the Miami-Dade area – that proved the first wake-up call to the leading Republican presidential candidates. If the GOP is to retake the White House, it needs to wake up to and accept the new reality of America.
Newt Gingrich, recognizing Mitt Romney’s vulnerability among Latinos because of his previously harsh anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric, called out Romney as being “anti-immigrant” in a television ad that appeared prior to the debates last week in Florida (which he later withdrew after being criticized by Sen. Marco Rubio).
Romney fired back, saying that the “idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
Latinos represent a large national voting bloc – constituting 16% of the population and 22 million potential voters -- as well as a key constituency in swing states such as New Mexico, Nevada, and Florida.
In his attempt to appeal to conservative Republican constituencies in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, Romney sought to establish his anti-illegal immigrant credentials, taking hard line positions against legalization and the Dream Act (which Latinos overwhelmingly support).
Switching gears and policy stances – which comes easily to the former Massachusetts governor – Romney during the last two debates and in other Florida forums desperately attempted to reposition himself as a pro-Latino, pro-immigration candidate. Although burdened by his English-first policy statements and slurs about Spanish, Gingrich has maintained a more nuanced position on immigration reform, including support for the regularization of the status of illegal immigrants (although not citizenship).
At a September debate in Orlando, Governor Rick Perry criticized Romney’s hardline stance against in-state tuition for immigrant children, saying: “I don’t think you have a heart.” Echoing that line of attack, Gingrich, seeking the high moral ground (and the Latino vote), charged that Romney’s call for harsh immigration-enforcement policies (which won Romney the endorsement of leading anti-immigrant ideologue Kris Kobach) that would encourage “self-deportation” as “inhumane.”
What, of course, remains to be seen is if the widespread anti-status quo sentiment in America will persuade Latinos and others to vote Republican this November despite the heartless of now-standard party positions on immigration and immigrants – and on the country’s widening class and ethnic divides.