- The Washington Times - Monday, September 10, 2007

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The Democrats running for president pledged last night to tackle immigration reform their first year in office, courting Hispanic voters in a live forum that offered little new substance.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said she would add border patrols and consider physical barriers on both the northern and southern U.S. borders. She said she favors a “pathway to legalization,” but her policy would focus on keeping families together.

Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language network, sponsored the forum, which included lengthy discussion of immigration policy, an issue that has dominated Republican debates.

Mrs. Clinton excoriated Republicans for doing a “great disservice” with their immigration proposals. “It is being demagogued … it is being used to bash immigrants, and that must stop,” she said.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said that in addition to stronger border security, he would push an employer-verification system and craft a pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal aliens already in the country. He also would work to reform the system for legal immigrants, citing backlogs and increased entrance fees.

Mr. Obama said that improving schools is key to lifting up Hispanic Americans and equated their struggle to the civil rights movement, quoting from a Martin Luther King letter to Cesar Chavez: “Our separate struggles are one.”

Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said the immigration debate should focus on “more border patrol, better use of technology … [and] a pathto earn citizenship for those who are living here and who are undocumented.”

He added that the United States should look at the underlying economic causes of people sneaking across the border, a theme the others echoed.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut said the United States should have trade agreements “that can lift people up” and said many problems in Central and South America can be helped with more financial commitment from the United States. “We have $1.6 billion for all of Latin America; we’ll spend $500 billion in Iraq,” he said.

The candidates took turns noting their own endorsements from prominent Hispanics. Mrs. Clinton, whose campaign manager is Hispanic, is backed by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey. Mr. Obama has the support of Rep. Luis V. Guiterrez of Illinois and Federico Pena, a former Clinton administration official who said last night that Mr. Obama’s unifying tone will appeal to Hispanic voters.

Mr. Menendez lauded Mrs. Clinton’s work pushing family-reunification amendments to the immigration bill this spring. He also criticized the Republican candidates because nearly all of them declined Univision’s invitation for a similar forum, saying: “The reality is that if Latinos want change in their lives, they should vote for Democrats.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Mr. Dodd, both fluent Spanish speakers, complained about restrictions that they answer only in English.

Mr. Richardson said he was disappointed that “Univision has promoted English only in this debate,” and received applause, before continuing in Spanish and prompting a rebuke from the moderator.

Mr. Richardson was clearly a favorite in the audience last night at the University of Miami, saying: “Latinos care about civil rights and immigration … we care about all issues. We care about health care, about the war in Iraq. We’re mainstream.”

Univision’s moderators said the forum reached 44 million viewers, but audience members complained after the forum that it yielded vague responses that won’t help them make up their minds.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio got big cheers for his line, “Our troops need to be brought home now.” Former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska said that if elected he will “reach out” to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, and criticized border-security plans, saying he is “embarrassed” by border-fence proposals.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware did not attend.

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