Sept. 20, 2012— -- This week, Univision hosted two "meet the candidate" events in Miami with President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Both candidates have been on the hot seat lately: Romney with his scorn for the 47 percent; Obama for Libya and the Fast and Furious scandal in the Justice Department.
But in Miami, some of the toughest questions focused on immigration issues, from deportations to Arizona's "papers, please" law, SB 1070. Polling consistently shows that the economy and jobs are top concerns for Hispanics, but immigration is often cited as a gateway issue, meaning that the wrong language or policies can alienate potential voters.
As Florida Congressman Marco Rubio told PBS NewsHour in August: "It's a gateway issue because in the Hispanic community, immigration is not a statistical issue. It's not a theory...You know someone, you love someone, you work with someone that is being impacted by an immigration problem."
At a glance, it might seem obvious who would be more appealing to a pro-migrant voter when it comes to immigration policy: Obama opposes SB 1070, Romney has mixed feeling about it; Obama supports the DREAM Act, Romney supports Florida Senator Marco Rubio's scaled-back version of the bill. Obama halted deportations for qualifying young undocumented immigrants this June; Romney said in January that immigrants should "self-deport."
But some immigrant rights activists are skeptical of both candidates, says Jorge-Mario Cabrera, the communications director at the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
"I think that in order for deportations to stop and to end the suffering of the community, whoever gets to the White House will need to work very, very closely with Congress, because at this time it seems that neither candidate is willing to maintain the idea that deportations are not that answer to the broken immigration system," Cabrera said. "Mr. Obama has become the deporter-in-chief and Mr. Romney does not negate the fact that he'll continue to do the same thing."
On Wednesday, Univision news anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas -- both famously tenacious when it comes to questioning politicians on immigration policy -- held the feet of both candidates to the fire on a range of issues. Not the least of those was deportations.
Obama, who has broken records for the number of deportations during his first term, tried to portray his administration as deporting bad guys and recent arrivals, not law-abiding residents and parents. "We have to focus our attention, our enforcement on people who genuinely pose a threat to our communities, not to hard-working families who are minding their own business," he said. "We don't have the capacity to enforce across the board."
However, what the administration defines as a criminal deportation includes relatively minor infractions, as well as more serious crimes. The top three categories for removals in 2011, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, were "dangerous drugs," "criminal traffic offenses," and "immigration." Those three categories make up a whopping 66 percent of deportations and voluntary departures.
The government report blends together greater and lesser crimes. While "criminal traffic offenses" includes hit-and-run accidents and DWIs, it also refers to people who ran stop signs or drove without a seat belt. While "immigration" removals include people charged with "alien smuggling," the category also counts those who were caught crossing the border without authorization.
At the Univision event, Obama also tried to shift the blame to Congress for the spike in deportations during his tenure. "Part of the reason that deportations went up is that Congress put a lot of money into it," he said.
As with any incumbent, Obama had the advantage and disadvantage of carrying his first-term record on immigration into the interview. Romney, on the other hand, faced a host of questions during his Wednesday night Univision appearance that were based primarily on positions he took during the Republican primary.
When Romney equivocated about whether he would deport an estimated 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants who are now eligible for deportation relief and work permits under Obama's deferred action policy, Ramos parried and returned with an even broader question:
JR: What you said is not very clear. On January 26 you told me that you were in favor of self-deportation. In a debate in the primary on February 22, you said that you thought that the Arizona model was a model to follow. Should the United States follow Arizona's immigration laws? And in that same response from when you told me that self-deportation will be a solution, do you think that we're going to self-deport 11 million undocumented immigrants? Are you going to deport them or not? I'm not that clear.
MR: I think I have some friends apparently. All right. I think I just answered the last part of your question which is that I said I'm not in favor of a deportation, mass deportation, a rounding up of 12 million people and taking them out of the country. I believe people make their own choices as to whether they want to go home and that's what I mean by self-deportation. People decide if they want to go back to the country of their origin and get in line legally to be able to come to this country. Look, legal immigration is critical for America. I love legal immigration. No nation on earth brings in a million people a year into their country.
If elected president, the central question is not whether Romney will bring an end to deportations, it's whether he'll continue President Obama's policy of increased enforcement. From 2000-2009, the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. increased by 27 percent, but even taking that demographic growth into account, the Obama administration has been far more aggressive with deportations than that of Bush. In his first term, Obama has deported twice as many people -- an average of nearly 400,000 per year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center -- than Bush during the same period of his presidency.
Voters can judge Obama by his record, but who will Romney be on immigration? A pragmatic politician like Obama, deporting record amounts while using his executive authority to enact landmark immigration policy changes like deferred action? Or more like Bush, a populist trying to bridge the gap between gap between families, business interests, and his conservative Christian base.
For CHIRLA's Jorge-Mario Cabrera, the question is less about the person in the White House, and more about whether the next president can mobilize Congress and American voters to support immigration reform.
"If neither candidate is unable to form a national consensus on why we need a new path, then immigrants will continue to live in the shadows and be deported," he said.
"We have a tough road ahead of us with either candidate."