The DREAM Act. Amnesty. Kris Kobach. Illegals. Undocumented. Arizona.
The second presidential debate on Tuesday night finally touched on immigration -- one of the towering issues among Latinos -- and it came loaded with all the trigger words that send temperatures rising.
There was little new in what President Obama and challenger Republican Mitt Romney said about their views on immigration. And so, if anything, both candidates further cemented their positions on immigration, particularly on the undocumented – echoing most of the talking points of their campaigns.
But Romney went deeper into some corners of the immigration debate that have gotten him in trouble with many Latinos and advocates of more lenient immigration policies – corners that his campaign doggedly has tried to avoid.
At the "town hall" forum at Hofstra University in New York, Romney uttered the controversial word “illegals” when speaking about undocumented immigrants.
Romney has used the term, which critics deride as dehumanizing, before, but this time it was before tens of millions of viewers and social media users, and on the heels of recent efforts to soften his rhetoric on immigration.
Twitter went bonkers after Romney said it.
“Except [for] Mitt, never heard a nom[inee] use the slur ‘illegals,’” tweeted Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America's Voice, a group that advocates for a more lenient approach to immigration. “Not Reagan, Bush, or McCain. No Dem[ocrat]. Most anti-immigrant candidate ever.”
For many, Romney’s use of the word and his reaffirmation of strict stances on illegal immigration put into sharp relief his image as a hawk on the issue.
“Mitt Romney continues to adhere to rhetoric on immigration that has alienated the Latino community,” said DRM Action Coalition, a group that supports undocumented youth, in a statement. “Many DREAMers were watching tonight hoping to see whether Mitt Romney could restore sensibility to the immigration debate. But he demonstrated his lack of sensitivity towards us by calling us ‘Illegals.’”
For advocates of more generous immigration policies, Obama reignited confidence by pushing the topic, even when the discussion seemed to be moving away from it, and promoting controversial positions that would give breaks to some undocumented immigrants.
The president said it was wrong to go after undocumented immigrants who took risks to come to this country for their families.
“If we’re going to go after folks who are here illegally, we should do it smartly,” Obama said, “and go after folks who are criminals, gangbangers, people who are hurting the community -- not after students. Not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families.”
In fact, during Obama’s tenure, more immigrants have been deported than ever before – about 400,000 a year -- and the majority of them were not criminals, not people who posed a danger to their communities.
Many were arrested because of immigration violations, a civil – not criminal – offense, and they’ve included many so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as minors.
Immigration advocates, who have assailed Obama for his enforcement approach, nonetheless appeared forgiving after he promoted on Tuesday many of the positions they favor.
“While President Obama has his shortcomings on immigration, including deportations, he has made a solid effort to bring reason to the debate,” said the DRM Action Coalition.
Proponents of strict immigration enforcement generally liked what they heard Romney say.
Proponents of strict immigration enforcement generally liked what they heard Romney say. Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, or CIS, expressed misgivings about how the questioner referred to undocumented immigrants.
Krikorian noted the questioner’s “new euphemism for ‘illegal aliens’ – ‘immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society.’”
What critics saw as extremism Krikorian, Romney supporters viewed as refreshingly unvarnished and pragmatic.
“Romney did not Etch-a-Sketch,” Krikorian wrote. “He looked the woman questioner, apparently an immigrant herself, in the eyes and forthrightly said ‘we’re going to have to stop illegal immigration,’ mentioning universal E-Verify and no driver’s licenses.”
Obama aimed for all of Romney’s hot-button positions.
The president tried to cast the former Massachusetts governor as to the right of even his own party, saying that former President George W. Bush worked (though unsuccessfully) toward getting bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform – an approach that includes both a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, as well as stricter enforcement.
“George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn't call for self-deportation," Obama said.
Romney came under considerable fire this year for touting the concept of self-deportation, where the inability to get a driver’s license, a job and other basic necessities would create such hardship for undocumented immigrants that they would leave the United States.
Kansas Secretary of State, Kris Kobach, who is the architect of Arizona’s anti-illegal immigration law, SB 1070, and other similar state immigration measures, has pushed “self-deportation” in public statements.
Kobach, who is described by the Romney campaign as the candidate’s “unofficial advisor” on immigration, also is a lead counsel in a lawsuit against an Obama administration initiative that suspends deportation for two years for certain undocumented immigrants brought as minors, and allows them to obtain work permits.
Romney, who has been relatively quiet about the controversial phrase “self-deportation,” defended the concept when Obama tried to put him on the defensive about it.
“Self-deportation says let people make their own choice,” Romney said. “We’re not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented, illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead, let people make their own choice. And if they find that they can’t get the benefits here that they want and they can’t find the job they want, then they’ll make a decision to go a place where they have better opportunities.”
Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, which favors strict immigration policies, lauded Romney as the better candidate for acting in the interests of unemployed Americans by attacking magnets – such as jobs -- for undocumented immigrants.
“Romney noted two primary ways that a country can enforce its immigration rules and said he rejects the one that involves mass roundups and mass deportations,” said Beck. “Instead, he said, he would take away the jobs and benefits magnets and allow most illegal immigrants to come to their own conclusion on moving back to their home countries.”
“Obama, unfortunately, indicated that he opposes both enforcement options, except for deporting criminals who are ‘hurting the community.’”
Critics pounced on Romney’s defense of self-deportation, saying that it advocated suffering as a way to make people desperate enough to leave.
“Once again, Mitt Romney showed you can describe his immigration policy in two words: ‘get out,’” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, in a written statement.
“The reality is that self deportation, as his close immigration advisor Kris Kobach defines, is making our lives so difficult that we would leave on our own. Mitt Romney had the opportunity tonight to move away from the extreme and nasty rhetoric on immigration. He failed to do so.”
For their part, proponents of strict enforcement felt that Romney missed an opportunity to tie illegal immigration to the economy, and couch his hard-line positions as being driven by a need to free up jobs for unemployed Americans.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente