Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney went at it on the subject of immigration in Thursday’s debate in Florida, with Gingrich labeling Romney as someone who was “anti-immigrant” and wanted to heartlessly separate families, and Romney attacking the former Speaker for falsely portraying his position.
Florida is a state with a large Hispanic population, and Gingrich and Romney have been in a Spanish-language ad war over the past few days. Gingrich was running an ad that called Romney “anti-immigrant,” but removed the language after he was reprimanded by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a much sought after vice presidential candidate, who said the portrayal of Romney was inaccurate.
Nonetheless, Gingrich stuck to the characterization in Thursday’s debate, saying that Romney was the most anti-immigrant of the four candidates on the stage.
“That’s simply inexcusable,” Romney spit back. “And Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inflammatory and inappropriate. Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
“You can say we disagree on policies, but to say that enforcing the U.S. law to protect our borders, to welcome people here legally, to expand legal immigration, as I have proved that that’s somehow anti-immigrant is simply the kind of over the top rhetoric that’s characterized American politics too long, and I’m glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it.”
“I think you should apologize for it and recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets,” Romney said to loud applause from the audience.
“I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you an opportunity to self-describe,” Gingrich responded. “You tell me what language you would use to describe somebody who thinks that deporting a grandmother or a grandfather from their family — just tell me the language.”
Romney replied, “I described following the law as it exists in this country, which is to say, I’m not going around and rounding people up and deporting them. What I said was, people who come here legally get a work permit. People who do not come here legally do not get a work permit. Those who don’t get work will tend over time to self-deport.”
“I’m not going to find grandmothers and deport them. Those are your words, not my words,” Romney went on. “And to use that rhetoric suggests to people that somehow if you’re not willing to keep people here who violated the law, that you’re anti-immigrant. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am pro-immigrant. I want people to come to America, with skills and vitality and vibrance. I want them to come legally. There are grandmothers that live on the other side of the border that are waiting to come here legally. I want them to come here, too, not just those that are already here.”
Gingrich shot back that Romney was switching sides on the issue.
“We’ve gone from your Washington attack when I first proposed this, and you said it was outrageous, it would be a magnet, to you’re accepting the fact that, you know, a family is going to take care of their grandmother and grandfather,” he said. “The idea that you are going to push them out by simply saying they can’t go get a job – I think the grandmother is still going to be here. I just want to allow the grandmother to be here legally with some rights to have residency but not citizenship so that he or she can finish their life with dignity, within the law.”
“You know, our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” Romney shot back, to laughter from the audience. “Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants, would like to have; school kids in schools that districts are having a hard time paying; people getting free health care because we are required to give it. And the real concern is people who want to come here legally. Let’s let legal immigrants come here,” Romney concluded.