It was delayed so long perhaps it is fitting than when immigration finally came up in the presidential debates, it came in a back door. 

One of the undecided voters selected by the Gallup Organization to ask questions at the candidates’ epic confrontation at Hofstra University Tuesday night, a Long Island woman named Susan Katz, asked Gov. Mitt Romney, “How do you differentiate yourself from George W. Bush?”

The Republican contender then clicked off how he is different than the 43rd president, but never mentioned immigration. 

President Obama did, breaking the ice on the issue when he said of the differences between the governor and the former president, “George Bush embraced comprehensive immigration reform. He didn’t call for self-deportation.”

The whole idea that as a nation we would strive to create an environment so hostile and unpleasant for undocumented immigrants that they would flee the country seems so, well, un-American.

- Geraldo Rivera

Self-deportation gives me the chills; the whole idea that as a nation we would strive to create an environment so hostile and unpleasant for undocumented immigrants that they would flee the country seems so, well, un-American.

Of all Gov. Romney’s harsh anti-immigration rhetoric during the campaign, including his embrace of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the author of Arizona’s SB1070, as his adviser on the issue, that notion of self-deportation is the most troubling.

During the debate, it wasn’t until a fellow named Michael Jones spoke woefully of the disappearance of optimism under the Obama administration that Governor Romney circled back to immigration. 

He included it in his list of presidential promises not kept by Mr. Obama during his first term, pointing to the President sitting just a few feet away: “He said in his first year he’d put out an immigration plan that would deal with our immigration challenge. Didn’t even file it.”

So there, Mr. President.

The candidates then continued their extraordinary verbal sparring match, punching and counter-punching, but both content to leave immigration behind. Intrepid Candy Crowley had other ideas, introducing a citizen questioner named Lorraine Osorio, who asked: “Mr. Romney, what do you plan on doing with immigrants without their green cards that are currently living here as productive members of society?”

After grappling with the proper pronunciation of her name, the former governor squared his shoulders and reminded us of his Mexican-born dad. 

It was something he never did until NBC News prepared an expose of his family history prior to the 2012 New Hampshire primary. 

Regardless, his reminder of his and wife Ann’s immigrant roots was helpful and humanizing. 

He then emphasized the importance of legal immigration and delivered the resounding invitation to foreign science and math graduates to “get a green card stapled to their diploma.”

On a roll, he then excoriated the president’s inaction on the immigration issue.

“Now when the president ran for office, he said that he’d put in place, in his first year, a piece of legislation --he’d file a bill in his first year that would reform our-- our immigration system, protect legal immigration, stop illegal immigration. He didn’t do it.”

All of which is true.

As he did during the entire second debate, to his credit, the president didn’t retreat into a cocoon as he had during the first debate. 

He spoke of Ellis Island and the allure of America to the world, and the need “to fix a broken immigration system.” 

After pointing out that his administration had fielded more Border Patrol agents than ever, and lowered the flow of undocumented workers to the lowest level in 40 years, he made the salient point about deportation, saying we should “go after folks who are criminals, gang bangers, 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, and that's what we've done.”

Mr. Obama then pointed out Mr. Romney’s pledge if elected to veto the DREAM Act.

When the governor had his final shot at rebuttal, he took on the toughest challenge he faces on immigration, the creepy issue of self-deportation. 

“We're not going to round up 12 million people, undocumented, illegals, and take them out of the nation. Instead, let -- make -- people make their own choice. And if they -- if they find that -- 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 -- where they have better opportunities.”

By using the pejorative shorthand “illegals” and arguing that they should be denied all benefits, and equating self-deportation to freedom of choice, Gov. Romney rallied his anti-immigrant base. 

But he should not expect to be embraced by the crucial Latino voting bloc. He may match John McCain’s 31 percent, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The question for President Obama is whether his own wishy washy record on the issue is enough to inspire Latinos to turn out the way they did in 2008 when they propelled him into the Oval Office, only to be put on the back burner until re-election beckoned.   

Geraldo Rivera is currently a Fox News Senior Correspondent. Click here for more information on Geraldo Rivera.

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