MIAMI — Former House speaker Newt Gingrich on Wednesday mocked as an “Obama-level fantasy” Mitt Romney’s plan to deal with illegal immigration by encouraging “self-deportation.”
Gingrich made the comment as he began a day of outreach to Florida’s Hispanic voters with an extensive interview on Spanish-language television and a speech at Florida International University in which he called for a more a forceful U.S. role in ending communist rule in Cuba, as well as an overhaul of U.S. economic policies toward all of Latin America.
In an interview with the Univision network, Gingrich said it was unrealistic for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States to voluntarily leave the country, as Romney, his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, suggested in a debate Monday ahead of Florida’s Jan. 31 primary. Gingrich, who upset the GOP race by decisively winning Saturday’s South Carolina primary, also used a question about the immigration issue to get in a few digs at the former Massachusetts governor over his wealth and tax returns.
“You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million income for no work to have some fantasy this far from reality,” Gingrich told Univision interviewer Jorge Ramos. “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.”
In a debate Monday, a moderator asked Romney how he would get illegal immigrants to go home without rounding up and deporting them, which he has said he does not want to do.
“Well, the answer is self-deportation,” he responded. He said this would happen when “people decide that they could do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.”
After Gingrich ridiculed the idea Wednesday, Romney’s campaign highlighted previous comments by Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, who said the vast majority of illegal immigrants would likely “self-deport” under Gringrich’s immigration plan, which Hammond said would allow only a small percentage of them to remain in the United States.
Romney himself on Wednesday accused Gingrich of pandering to Florida’s Latino voters by mocking Romney’s stance on immigration.
“Unfortunately for him, these are things he’s already spoken out about and he’s spoken out about in favor,” Romney said, referring to an earlier comment from Gingrich’s spokesman that also suggested that immigrants might “self-deport.”
“Now, I recognized that that it’s very tempting to come into an audience like this and to pander to the audience and say what you hope people will want to hear,” Romney told Univision’s Ramos. “But frankly, I think that’s unbecoming of a presidential candidate.”
The two campaigns also sparred Wednesday over a Gingrich political ad that called Romney “anti-immigrant.” The ad, which aired on Spanish-language radio, was denounced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a tea party favorite who has remained neutral in the primary campaign.
Romney’s Hispanic leadership team, which includes former senator Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), called the ad “untrue, offensive and unbecoming” and demanded that Gingrich pull it. Hammond, the Gingrich spokesman, denied reports that the campaign had acceded to the demand, saying that the ad was part of a rotating series and merely went out of rotation.
Romney is slated to appear Wednesday afternoon at the same Univision candidate forum where Gingrich spoke in the morning. Later, Romney was scheduled to address the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Miami. Earlier, he offered a scathing review of President Obama’s State of the Union address in a speech at a factory in Tampa.
On the campaign trail in Florida, Gingrich and Romney sought to appeal to Latinos — a difficult task nationwide for GOP candidates. According to a new ABC News/Univision poll, Latino voters favor Obama over all the Republican hopefuls by a wide margin.
In Florida, Latinos prefer Obama over Romney 50 percent to 40 percent in a hypothetical head-to-head general election contest, according to the poll. In a matchup against Gingrich, the poll shows the margin to be even wider, with 52 percent supporting the president to 38 percent for the former speaker.
About one in 10 likely voters in the closed Florida GOP primary is Latino, and 35 percent of them say they would vote for Romney, while only 20 percent support Gingrich and 21 percent are undecided, according to the poll.