Like many Latin American immigrants watching the Sept. 7 televised debate among Republican hopefuls, I drew a clear-cut conclusion after the show — these guys don't like us.
With the possible exception of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who at one point had to remind his fellow debaters that immigrants are "human beings," the remaining seven men and one woman who took part in the MSNBC-Politico debate seemed to be competing among each other to see who was taking the hardest line against undocumented Hispanic immigrants.
None of them even mentioned the fact that illegal immigration has dropped dramatically since the 2008 economic crisis.
Even before the debate started, an ad catering to California Republicans watching the debate made me cringe. It showed a blond man saying that America's problem is not just illegal immigration, but legal immigration as well.
The ad, by a group called Californians for Population Stabilization — uggh, it sounded to me awfully close to "Californians for Population Sterilization" — said that "we need to slow legal immigration" to reduce unemployment, ignoring the fact that most immigrants do jobs that few U.S. citizens are willing to do.
From then on, it kept going downhill. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the Republican front runner, called for "more troops on the ground" along the U.S.-Mexican border. Yet, he failed to mention not only that illegal crossings are at their lowest levels since the early 1970s, but also that the number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled to 20,000 over the past six years.
Most important, Perry neglected to mention that nearly half of all undocumented immigrants don't enter the country crossing the Mexican desert, but come legally through U.S. airports, and overstay their tourist visas, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said his first priority to solve the immigration problem would be building a fence along the entire 2,600-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
But Romney conveniently failed to say that, in addition of being economically unfeasible, it would not keep undocumented immigrants from crossing it with ladders, or tunnels, as long as the U.S. per capita income remains several times higher than Mexico's, and American employers offer them jobs that U.S. citizens won't take.
Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann talked about the danger of terrorists crossing the border, but failed to mention that not one of the 9/11 terrorists entered the United States through Mexico, and that a recent USA Today investigation based on FBI figures concluded that "rates of violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border have been falling for years."
The only voice of reason I heard at the debate was Huntsman, who reminded his rivals that a much of the country's current immigration problems are due to the huge backlogs and other difficulties foreigners face when trying to immigrate legally.
In other words, many people come through the back door because they can't get in through the front door. The United States must do something to attract brain power, skilled workers and investors, he said.
How can the Republican Party win the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote that most pollsters say it will need in the 2012 elections if their front-runners alienate Hispanic voters on issues such as immigration and cutting social programs, I asked several Republican strategists.
Republican pollster Nicole McCleskey told me that "what's going to be the key factor in 2012 is Obama's poor performance among white voters. Because he is doing poorly among white voters, it decreases the necessity of the Republican candidate getting to that 40 percent figure."
My opinion: In their quest for support of their party's right wing in the primaries, top Republican hopefuls have given up on the Hispanic vote. That's likely to cost their party the 2012 elections. There is no question that the United States, like any other country, needs to protect its borders, and to control who gets in.
But it needs a combination of (a) improving the current mechanisms for accepting legal immigrants so that deserving migrants can get into the country with visas, rather than with people smugglers, (b) focused enforcement, so that criminals are weeded out, and (c) greater economic ties with Latin America, so that U.S. neighbors do better and their people stay home.
What we don't need is cheap demagoguery. I, for one, felt that none of the front-runners likes Hispanic immigrants.
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Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald.