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Romney, Obama Should Not Celebrate Debate, Immigrant And Civil Rights Advocates Say

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President Barack Obama speaks during his debate with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in Denver, on Oct. 3, 2012. (STF/AFP/GettyImages) | Getty Images

Two technocrats, dressed in dark suits and armed with their own versions of the truth, walked into a Denver auditorium for a presidential debate.

Then, both men forgot all about the people whose votes they want to win.

That description might sound like the start of the world's most boring airplane read or a Capitol Hill joke. But one day after the first presidential debate, that’s precisely how immigrant advocates and Latino civil rights groups are describing what happened in Denver Wednesday night. For Latino voters, and those concerned about immigrants and the rights of women, the Denver faceoff was a bewildering disappointment.

“I was utterly astonished by how disconnected they both seemed from America and the actual human beings who live here," said Mallika Dutt, president and CEO of breakthough, a New York-based international human rights nonprofit that advocates for women’s and immigrant’s causes.

“While they were up there talking about tax policy and deficits in the most abstract ways possible,” she said, “there are a lot of people in the country who are really hurting. There are a lot of people trying to find jobs, still struggling with foreclosures. People are really facing very tangible economic problems. Yet, you heard almost nothing about that.”

Last week, Dutt saw both men speak at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering in New York. There, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney gave an impassioned speech about his belief that the free enterprise system can deliver solutions to the world’s problems in both broad and specific ways, she said. Obama told compelling stories about human trafficking and its connection to all types of exploitation in the United States.

“Whatever our feelings about the politics, the central focus of what Gov. Romney and President Obama had to say was very human, very real,” Dutt said.

On Wednesday, Dutt heard the only mentions of foreclosure come in the form of admonitions of consumer and Wall Street greed, she said. Discriminatory lending practices and the stagnant wages leading up to the housing bubble went missing. She heard no mention at all of median wages or what she called the “insanely anachronistic,” debate taking shape in the country around birth control, abortion and women’s heath care -- just as the idea of educating and empowering women is taking root in other parts of the world, she said.

Most notably absent: any discussion, even a mention of immigration, the ways that the country’s population is changing and how policy could be used to help harness the benefits of those changes and address the challenges that come with them, she said.

“There is huge discussion around the Dreamers right now and how these young people might be given a pathway to become full members of society,” Dutt said. “Where was that last night?”

Former Gov. Romney went into the debate after having made news Monday with comments about Obama’s deferred action program. The program grants temporary deportation reprieves and work permits to certain young undocumented immigrants. Romney clarified his comments the following day with a promise to end the program, and committed to an unspecified type of immigration reform during his first year in office, said Clarissa Martínez De Castro, director of immigration and national campaigns at the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based civil rights organization.

“It was very much like he took one step forward and two steps back this week,” Martínez said. “Immigration has become a lighting rod precisely because it is a distinct question that he has evaded … So, I think it was also an issue, if not the issue, that a lot of Latino voters expected to hear about last night.”

All the talk about tax policy, scaled-back spending and Romney’s commitment to lower tax rates but eliminate specified deductions, invest more deeply in the military and reduce the deficit, leaves a lot of questions about a full basket of domestic policy issues, she said.

Martínez noted that inside many Latino households the economic situation is grim: More Latinos than any other group live without health insurance. Hispanic unemployment sat just above 10 percent in September and the group's foreclosure rate is disproportionately high.

“Because we are a young population, education is deeply important, the training of our workforce for the future is crucial, the housing crisis, the future of social security, those cuts coming for people who aren’t senior citizens right now, all matter a great deal,” Martínez said. “What we didn’t hear is we know you exist, we want your votes and here’s where the investments are going to come from to secure your future, our future.”

Which tax policies and national debt levels help to produce a healthy economy that creates jobs came up more than once, said Martínez. The Affordable Care Act and what people who can afford health care can purchase on the private market -- should Romney win -- also got their time in the spotlight. But the differences between the two candidates and what their policies would mean in the lives of voters were muddled and ultimately lost in a sea of cold facts and figures, she said.

“It really devolved into a he-said, he-said battle of the numbers,” Martinez said. "It was as if the debate had nothing to do with the rest of us. So, going forward, it will be interesting to see if, indeed, the glaring omissions continue."

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