View from Mexico: The presidential debate on immigration

On the eve of the first US presidential debate, Mexicans weigh in on where President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney stand on immigration – and offer policy proposals of their own.

Reed Saxon/AP/File
In this Sept. photo, Charlene Gomez leads an orientation seminar for illegal immigrants, to determine if they qualify for temporary work permits, at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), in Los Angeles.

If Republican candidate Mitt Romney is trying to woo Latino voters with a softened stance on immigration as he heads into his first debate with President Obama tonight, many of the relatives of those voters in Mexico are not buying it.

“I prefer Obama, the other one is very aggressive,” says Elizabeth Martinez, sweeping the sidewalk outside of the chic baby clothes store where she works in Mexico City. “He wants to make it harder and harder for immigrants.”

Pressed for months to clarify his stance on immigration, Mr. Romney told The Denver Post on Monday that he, as president, would not take away the deferrals that were granted under an Obama order announced in June, giving certain young, law-abiding undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as minors a reprieve from deportation.

“The people who have received the special visa that the president has put in place, which is a two-year visa, should expect that the visa would continue to be valid,” Romney told the newspaper, adding that he plans to have an immigration reform in place before the deferrals expire.

The Republican presidential candidate previously declined to say if he would undo the program, which could impact hundreds of thousands of young immigrants living without papers in the US.

Mexicans, many of whom have relatives in the US either legally or illegally, have supported the permits that Mr. Obama has given and worry that a Romney victory would be a step backwards.

“Romney represents the American establishment,” says Jorge Ugalde, who imports motorcycles in Mexico City. He says he supports Obama’s decision to grant a reprieve to young undocumented immigrants but thinks an amnesty should go much further – a view shared almost unanimously on the streets of Mexico City.

“Those who are there illegally, they should be able to stay there,” says Francisco Narganes, a 90-year-old retired chemist who has watched immigration politics play out over the course of his lifetime. “They have worked there. Their life is there.”

“They have kids there, they should stay there with them in the US,” adds Norma Jimenez, a cleaner for a condominium complex in Mexico City.

Many say that in their ideal worlds, the next president would offer a temporary visa program that actually reflects the reality of the job market. “No matter what country it is, we all depend on labor from all over the world,” says Marcos Contreras, who works in telecommunications in Mexico City. "It’s the same in the US. But they take ‘security’ to an extreme.”

Ms. Martinez from the baby-clothes shop says if she could draft a policy, Mexicans would be granted the right to enter the US for three months and try to find a job legally. If they are unable to find one, they head home. “With [the free trade agreement] NAFTA, goods can go easily between countries,” she says. “It should be the same with people.”  

Neither candidate would go that far, but both seek to court Latino voters, especially in crucial states such as Florida or North Carolina.

Obama has been the clear favorite with Latinos, while Romney has been moderating his tone on immigration policy. During the nomination process for the Republican ticket he said he would veto Dream Act legislation, which failed in Congress but would have provided a path to legal status for some young, undocumented immigrants.

Obama’s June order is similar to the Dream Act in several ways. Romney now says he would uphold that order, and that he favors a path to legal status for those who have served in the military. 

Latino voters might be confused by his stance. After his Denver Post comments made big news, Romney later told the Boston Globe that while he will not take away permits from those who already have received them, he will undo the order once in office. And on Sept. 24 in Ohio, his running mate Paul Ryan said that a Romney administration could overturn the order. "Here's the great thing about a Mitt Romney presidency. For an executive order that came from the last president, the new president can undo it," he said. "We're planning that."

Romney faces an uphill battle getting Latinos on his side in the US, no matter what he does at this point in the campaign, with Obama leading Romney among Latino voters by some 40 points, according to Reuters.

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