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.
Gingrich also talked extensively about immigration policy in Latin America, and, in a nod to Cuban-American voters, he offered to push for "Cuban Spring" if elected president.
Gingrich said he would be open to using everything up to covert operations to replace stalwart Fidel Castro's regime. "Hands off Cuba, that's baloney," he said. "The people of Cuba deserve freedom."
At the FIU forum, about 250 people came to the Wertheim Performing Arts Center to hear Gingrich speak. He talked often about Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations and also about the U.S. Southern Command, which is based in Miami.
Gingrich said he would work to bring democracy to the island, which has been under the rule of dictator Fidel Castro for more than 50 years.
“I don’t think it occurs to a single person in the White House to look south and propose a Cuban spring,”said Gingrich. Barack Obama is going "almost exactly the opposite,” of what should be a good Cuba policy, Gingrich added.
During Monday's debate, Gingrich has made similar remarks saying he would use non-military efforts to overthrow Fidel Castro and his surrogate, his brother Raul who is now the official leader of the communist country.
“More than 50 years of dictatorship is more than enough,” he said to loud applause, and he later added that young Cubans should know "that there will not be a succesor to Castro.”
Gingrich proposed dramatically changing U.S. policy toward Latin America in general, saying a stronger Southern Command could do just that. He suggested transferring responsibility over Mexico from the Northern Command to the Southern Command in an effort to help that country fight its war on drugs caretels.
Gingrich said he would ease travel to the U.S. by Latin Americans who come here on business or as tourists.
The former House speaker ripped Romney's immigration policy, laughing off the idea of self-deportation that Romney had suggested during a Monday night debate saying it wouldn't work.
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, forcing 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 on 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.
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."
At the forum, Gingrich spoke also about border control 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.
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.
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. Thirteen percent of the state's registered voters are Hispanic.
While the questions were mostly about Hispanic concerns, Ramos asked Gingrich whether it was hypocritical for him to criticize then-President Bill Clinton and pursue his impeachment in the 1990s when Gingrich was also being unfaithful to his second wife.
Gingrich snapped at the premise of the question and said it was Clinton's false testimony under oath that bothered him most.
"The fact is I've been through two divorces. I've been deposed both times under oath. Both times I told the truth in the deposition," Gingrich said. "I have never lied under oath. I have never committed perjury."
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