In the Presidential Debate, Immigration Stayed in the Shadows

It was, to some, the huge elephant in the room who got less attention than even a fictitious oversized yellow bird.

Immigration -- one of the dominant issues in the GOP primary, the GOP platform, as well as the Democratic National Convention – didn’t come up at all in the first presidential debate Wednesday.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the Illinois Democrat who is chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Task Force on Immigration, took everyone -- President Obama, GOP challenger Mitt Romney and debate moderator Jim Lehrer -- to task for the omission.

“It is absurd that a 90 minute debate on domestic policy and the economy would not address immigration at all, not even in passing,” Gutierrez said in a written statement, “especially when Latino voters are considered the key demographic that will determine who sits in the White House.”

“The moderator dropped the ball, the President missed an opportunity, and Romney dodged a bullet,” he said.

It is absurd that a 90 minute debate on domestic policy and the economy would not address immigration at all, not even in passing, especially when Latino voters are considered the key demographic that will determine who sits in the White House.

— Rep. Luis Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, and chairman of immigration task force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus

The debate was designed to focus on domestic policy. The second debate, scheduled for Oct. 16, is expected to focus on both domestic and foreign policy. The third debate, on Oct. 22, is to cover foreign policy.

Frank Sharry, head of America’s Voice, a Washington D.C.-based group that favors more lenient immigration policies, expressed confidence that the issue will come up at one of the remaining debates.

“I was disappointed but the, shall we say, loose structure of the debate kept the focus on the economy,” Sharry said. “I'm confident the issue will come up in future debates.”

On Twitter, Latinos debated about whether its omission was significant.

Some said that it is, but others said that jobs were more pressing for Latinos – who have a higher unemployment rate than other groups -- and all Americans.

It was a point echoed by the Mitt Romney campaign.

The Dallas Morning News quoted Ben Ginsberg, chief counsel to the Romney campaign, as saying: “Hispanic voters are no different than other voters in that what they will look for is who can provide more jobs for middle-class Americans, and for communities. It’s all about jobs and the economy.”

Some placed the blame on the moderator, PBS NewsHour host Lehrer, for not raising the topic for the candidates to address.

“It’s Jim Lehrer’s fault,” said Miguel Perez, a nationally syndicated columnist who writes about Latino issues and who chairs the Communications Department at Lehman College in New York. “Lehrer didn’t go anywhere near Latino issues – voting rights, immigration. It was a debate mostly focused on the economy, but he could have at least mentioned immigration at some point. He really didn’t give the candidates much room to talk about it.”

“There was, at most, a little opening when Obama had an opportunity to bring it up,” Perez added. “When he explained all the hard-line positions that Romney has taken on several things, he could have added immigration to that list. But that’s about the only opening I saw, and it wasn’t really that much of an opening.”

At a press conference in Colorado on Thursday, Obama raised immigration fleetingly when he referred to Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act, a measure that would give undocumented immigrants who were brought as minors a pathway to legalization if they meet a strict set of criteria.

Drawing contrasts between himself and his GOP challenger on various issues, Obama, who cast Romney as uncaring about those who are struggling, said to the crowd of supporters “You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here, and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home.”

Dan Stein, the head of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a Washington D.C.-group that favors strict immigration enforcement, said: “Romney could certainly help himself by pledging to enforce the immigration laws as they are written and proposing cuts in overall immigration to reduce unemployment.”

“But polls show that Romney’s main challenge right now is to prevent Obama from using the promise of immigration amnesties to energize his political machine on voting day,” Stein said. “Obama’s general deferred amnesty program is also very unpopular with Romney’s base. Since Romney wants to avoid firing up Obama’s base, and Obama wants to avoid further riling up Romney’s base. Voila -- no immigration discussion. Maybe next time.”