GOP Debate: Immigration Issues Likely to Surface on Florida Stage

When the GOP presidential candidates take to the debate stage tonight in Florida, a state whose population is almost a quarter Hispanic, immigration is sure to surface as a hot-button issue.

The Sunshine State is shaping up to be a pivotal battleground for the GOP field. Florida is expected to be the first big-state primary and carries a highly-coveted 29 electoral votes.

“We are a very diverse state and have large communities of Hispanic voters and other ethnic minorities that are concerned with what the future of immigration policy will look like,” said Brian Hughes, a spokesman for the Florida Republican Party.

But long before the CNN/Tea Party Express debate got under way, former GOP front-runner Mitt Romney launched attacks from a different Florida stage at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is beating Romney by 12 points in the latest CNN/ORC poll, over the governor’s immigration policies.

“We must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration.  As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants,” Romney said in a speech to the Republican National Hispanic Assembly in Tampa earlier this month.

Romney was undoubtedly alluding to Perry’s support of a Texas law that grants in-state tuition to children of undocumented immigrants, a law that Perry signed in 2001.

Another area of contention between the two Republicans is border security. While both candidates are strongly in favor of secure borders, Romney said at the debate last week that the first step to securing the border is building a fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Perry opposes the fence, which he said was a “ridiculous” idea.

“You’ve got strategic fencing in some of the metropolitan areas — that’s very helpful — but the idea that you’re going to build a wall from Brownsville to El Paso is just — it’s ridiculous on its face,” Perry said at an August campaign stop in New Hampshire.

Perry instead supports heightened law enforcement presence along the border and more support from the federal government.

“You can secure the border, but it requires a commitment of the federal government to put those boots on the ground, the aviation in the air. We think predator drones could be flown,” the Texas Governor said last week at the GOP debate.

Last year Perry called on the Obama administration to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas border. The president sent 1,200 troops to cover the entire border, only about 250 of which were sent to Texas.

“The fact of the matter is that 1,200-mile border is too much for even the state of Texas, as substantial as we are, to defend,” Perry said in August. “I will assure you one thing, if I’m the president of the United States, the border will be secure.”

Romney has also expressed his support for additional manpower to enforce immigration laws, but in all states, not just those that share a border with Mexico. In his Tampa speech, the former Massachusetts governor touted a law he signed while in the state house that “strengthened the authority our state troopers had to enforce existing immigration laws.”

In the same speech Romney said he would create an employment verification system that would “get tough on employers who hire illegal immigrants.”

During his last bid for the White House in 2007, Romney came under fire after the Boston Globe reported that the company he hired to do landscaping work at his pink colonial home in Belmont, Mass., employed illegal immigrants.

Soon afterward, the Democratic National Convention blasted Romney over the issue in a memo to reporters.

“Even as Romney travels the country, vowing to curb the flood of low-skilled illegal immigrants into the United States some of those workers maintain his own yard, cutting grass, pruning shrubs and mulching trees,” the DNC letter said.