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US presidential hopefuls tackle immigration, terrorism, drugs

November 26, 2011

You know the GOP is in a state when its least insane sounding candidate is an adulterous, “ethically challenged” man called Newt.

Mexico was at the center of Tuesday night’s televised debate between Republican presidential hopefuls, with immigration, border control, drug policy and terrorism emerging as key issues that could be potentially damaging to bilateral relations.

Eight rivals for the Republican Party nomination for next year’s presidential election sparred in Washington D.C., with new frontrunner Newt Gingrich risking his recent poll gains by offering a humane but comparatively bold stance on immigration. The former House of Representatives Speaker said he favored allowing illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for many years to stay.

“If you’ve been here 25 years and you’ve got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve bmaeen paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out,” Gingrich said.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families which have been here a quarter-century,” he continued. “And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so they are not separated from their families.”

Based on the Kiebler Foundation’s “Red Card Solution,” Gingrich’s plan would either offer a route to citizenship to those wishing to reside in the United States in the long term, or provide temporary work permits to seasonal workers and other short-term laborers.

Gingrich’s rivals were quick to seize on his proposal as a sign of weakness. Channeling her Tea Party base, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann condemned Gingrich for wanting “to legalize 11 million illegal aliens in the United States,” (this is known as “amnesty” in Republican parlance) while refusing to provide a clear alternative herself.

Similarly straddling the fence, Gingrich’s closest competitor,  former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, said his policy would be a “magnet” for greater illegal immigration, while also declining to say whether he would deport the 11 million undocumented workers.

A nationwide poll of Republican supporters released by Quinnipiac University on Tuesday showed that Gingrich, 68, now leads the pack. He commands 26 percent of support, compared to Romney’s 22 percent. A CNN poll had Gingrich ahead by the same margin.

Although his more liberal position on immigration is shared by both President Barack Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush, it is likely to damage his standing among primary voters. Conversely, his opponents’ more right-wing views may appeal to hardcore Republicans during the primary season, but risk alienating moderate conservatives and independents, as well as upsetting the huge Hispanic population, in the United States.

Another more surprising topic of discussion was the purported presence of Islamic terrorist organizations in Mexico. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s claim “that Hamas and Hezbollah are working in Mexico,” was echoed by Herman Cain, who said “we know that terrorists have come into this country by way of Mexico.”

Romney refused to cool the rhetoric, stating that Hezbollah was working “throughout Latin America, in Venezuela, in Mexico … which poses a very significant and imminent threat to the United States of America.”

While these alarmist claims may whip the party base into a frenzy, such comments were not well appreciated south of the border, where they drew criticism and a swift rebuttal.

“Definitively, and we must be very clear on this, there’s no foundation to support these kind of declarations. We’re very surprised to see this kind of debate where such statements are made without anything to back them up,” said Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa on Wednesday. With no evidence presented by any candidate to support their bold claims, Espinosa asked “that there be more care with these type of statements.”

By focusing on Islamic terrorism in Mexico and Latin America, the Republican candidates risk sounding out of touch with the major issues in the region. Many Latin American leaders have expressed frustration at recent U.S. foreign policy, while Perry’s assertion that “it’s time for a 21st century Monroe Doctrine,” will only bring to mind the numerous bloody coups and military dictatorships that the United States backed in order to maintain hegemony across the western hemisphere throughout the 20th century.

“The idea that we need to have border security with the United States and Mexico is paramount to the entire western hemisphere,” Perry affirmed. “As the President of the United States, I will promise you one thing, that within 12 months of the inaugural (sic), that border will be shut down, and it will be secure.”

Besides Gingrich, the only candidate to really veer off party lines was Ron Paul. A liberal maverick by Republican standards, Paul called for a complete overhaul of U.S. drug policy. In response to Perry’s support of the “War on Drugs,” he said, “I think the federal war on drugs is a total failure,” drawing hearty applause from the audience.

“The drug war is out of control,” he continued. “Because it undermines our civil liberties, it magnifies our problems on the borders. We spent like over the last 40 years a trillion dollars on this war and, believe me, the kids can still get the drugs. It just hasn’t worked.”

Paul added that the U.S. policy is “where the violence is coming from,” as well as calling for the decriminalization of marijuana and the right for states to set laws on drug use instead of the federal government. While unlikely to draw mainstream support in the United States, Paul’s alternative approach to drug-trafficking may prove more popular among Chicanos concerned by the violence that has devastated parts of Mexico in recent years.

The focus on Mexico-related issues provides an intriguing subtext ahead of the elections next November. Latinos comprise the fastest growing demographic in the United States and will account for an estimated 21.5 million voters in 2012.

Many still have family in Mexico or Latin America so a humane and constructive approach to immigration and other bilateral concerns could provide either party with a significant boost in support in the upcoming elections.

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