DORAL, Fla. – Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich on Wednesday ridiculed rival Mitt Romney's call for self-deportation of illegal immigrants as an "Obama-level fantasy" that would be inhumane to long-established families living in America. Romney, for his part, accused Gingrich of pandering to a Hispanic audience and said Gingrich himself had supported self-deportation in the past.
Discussing immigration in state where 13 percent of registered voters are Hispanic, the former House speaker criticized Romney's immigration policy during a forum with the Spanish-language television network Univision, saying the idea of self-deportation would never work. Romney snapped back at him later in the day at the same forum.
During a debate earlier this week, Romney said he favors self-deportation over policies that would require the federal government to round up millions of illegal immigrants and send them back to their home countries. Advocates of Romney's approach argue that illegal immigration can be curbed by denying public benefits to them, prompting them to leave the United States on their own.
"You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatically $20 million income for no work to have some fantasy this far from reality," Gingrich said, alluding to details in Romney's income tax returns made public Tuesday. "For Romney to believe that somebody's grandmother is going to be so cut off that she is going to self-deport, I mean this is an Obama-level fantasy."
But Gingrich's campaign has spoken of the self-deportation policy he ridiculed Wednesday.
"I recognize that it's very tempting to come out to an audience like this and pander to the audience," Romney said, pointing out that Gingrich has previously made comments supporting the idea of self-deportation. "I think that was a mistake on his part."
In debates, Gingrich has defended a proposal to allow some illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. if they've lived here for more than 25 years and have a local sponsor.
Romney's campaign directed reporters to past comments by Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, who said that only a small percent of illegal immigrants would likely be allowed to stay in the U.S. under Gingrich's plan. Hammond went on to say that the vast majority of them would likely "self-deport."
Gingrich also ran into trouble over a radio ad calling Romney "anti-immigrant." Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called the ad "inaccurate" and "inflammatory." Romney's campaign also asked Gingrich in a letter to pull the ad. Hammond, the Gingrich spokesman, confirmed that the ad was pulled but declined to say whether Rubio's concerns led to the decision.
Romney called the anti-immigrant label an "epithet" and "inappropriate."
At the forum, Gingrich spoke instead about other elements of his immigration plan, including controlling the border and establishing a guest-worker program to better manage the influx of immigrants. Gingrich said he favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrant children who serve in the military but not for simply completing college.
Romney defended his opposition to allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at American universities. He said there are inexpensive options that will allow them to go to college.
Gingrich told Univision he believes states should charge in-state tuition rates for students who were born in the U.S. to illegal immigrant parents, but that he favors charging out-of-state tuition for children who were brought to this country illegally.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's support of a Texas policy to allow children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition proved to be problematic with conservatives nationwide. Perry dropped out of the race last week.
Gingrich began the interview by speaking a few halting phrases of welcome in Spanish — "Buenos Dias estudiantes" — but begged off when moderator Jorge Ramos pressed him to go further. Romney did not speak any Spanish during his interview.
Romney was asked about family members he has living in Mexico. Romney's father, George Romney, was born in Mexico but moved back to the U.S. as a young child.
Ramos asked Romney if he had a claim to being Mexican American.
"I don't think people would think I was being honest with them if I said I was Mexican American but I'd appreciate it if you'd get that word out," Romney said, smiling.
Florida is home to many Hispanics of Puerto Rican or Cuban descent who don't view immigration as a priority but are more interested in the issue than the general public.
Both candidates addressed the future of communist Cuba after their interviews.
In a speech on Latin America policy, Gingrich said the U.S. needs to take a more active role in demanding change in Fidel Castro's Cuba, much like it did to encourage the Arab spring movement that toppled autocratic leaders in north Africa and the Middle East.
"I don't think it's ever occurred to anyone in the White House to look south and propose a Cuban spring," Gingrich said. "If (former Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak was bad, Castro is worse."
Romney, who has significant support from the Cuban-American political establishment in Miami, railed against Castro's regime in a speech before several hundred Cuban-American democracy activists.
"It is time for us to strive for freedom in Cuba, and I will do so as president," he said. "We must be prepared to support the voices for democracy in Cuba."