Thursday (Feb. 25) night’s GOP debate was one of the first times that Republican candidates were called upon to address the concerns of the Latino community that they have repeatedly alienated during this year’s bruising nomination fight.
The debate in Houston, Texas, was co-hosted by CNN and Telemundo and simulcast in Spanish, gave Telemundo anchor Maria Celeste Arrarás an opportunity to corner Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz with carefully crafted questions about their immigration policies and the effect that their inflammatory rhetoric has had on Latino communities.
She began by calling out Rubio for flip-flopping on president Barack Obama’s executive order (known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival, or DACA), which protects young children brought to the US by undocumented immigrants.
Rubio initially said, in Spanish, that it would be unfair to end the program immediately, but since vowed to eliminate DACA on his first day in office.
Rubio responded that while he was sympathetic to the plight of children who were involuntarily brought to the US, the executive action was unconstitutional and could not be ignored. “No matter how sympathetic we may be to a cause, we cannot violate the constitution of the United States the way this president now does on a regular basis,” Rubio said.
He also clarified, when pressed, that he would begin phasing out DACA the day he entered the Oval Office, so that current permits could not be renewed and no one else could apply.
Arrarás also asked Cruz—the first Hispanic candidate to win a presidential primary, in Iowa—whether he was missing an opportunity to expand the Republican party with policies that were hostile to immigrants.
Cruz challenged the perception that all Latinos were liberal and boasted that his Senate campaign won 40% of the Latino vote in Texas. He deflected attention onto the Democrats, saying the “Obama-Clinton economy” had done “enormous damage” to Latinos.
Rubio also took as swing at the Democratic party. He said what matters even more than immigration to the Latino community is the opportunity to give their children better lives. That’s a dream, he argued, is possible through free enterprise, which Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton don’t align with.
Arrarás then set her sights on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, highlighting a recent Telemundo poll that he performed poorly in and calling his win with Hispanics in Nevada statistically insignificant.
“First of all, I don’t believe anything Telemundo says,” Trump pushed back, adding that he had employed tens of thousands of Latinos over the years.
But, ever the businessman, Trump said the he wasn’t just trying to lure Hispanics to the Republican party, and that he would bring in Democrats and Independents as well. “Were building a much bigger, much stronger Republican party,” Trump said.