WASHINGTON -- Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, said Saturday he is confounded by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's decision during the GOP primary to align himself with hardliners on immigration, and questioned whether the candidate realized -- or even cared about -- the message it would send to Latino voters.
"He himself has immigrant [roots]. I don't understand -- why this position?" Fox said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. "Maybe they have figured out that without the Hispanic vote they can make it. And let's say that is true. But what is going to be the capacity of the nation during the next four years if there is a divide?"
Fox served as president from 2000 to 2006 and now runs a presidential library, Centro Fox, that is set to host a series of upcoming events with other prominent figures -- including a debate between Fox and former U.S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in December -- to discuss international cooperation.
He took pains to avoid making an endorsement or saying which of the two candidates he thought would better serve the country, and offered up considerable criticism of President Barack Obama along with his worries about Romney. Both, Fox said, seem to be more interested in fighting each other than showing how they would lead the country.
"If they keep spending their energies on trying to convince public opinion that the other guy is wrong, if they keep debating the negatives, I don't see leadership there," he said. "I cannot go for either one. But I think they can change."
On the Latino vote and immigration, though, Fox offered a strong critique of Romney for what he said were either unclear or disrespectful positions. Romney has a major problem with Latino voters, despite having increased the amount of targeted advertising and outreach directed at them over previous cycles. Some polls put Obama ahead of Romney by 50-point margins among Latino voters, and the GOP's failure to win over those voters could be a huge problem for the party going forward as they begin to make up a larger share of the population.
"I really think that Mitt Romney started on the wrong side [on immigration]," he said.
"He started creating a negative evaluation about what Latinos, Hispanics, Mexicans can bring to the United States," he said, referring to Romney's statements during the primary. "He has not changed completely his point of view."
Fox said he does not support open borders, but believes undocumented immigrants already in the United States should be given some way to stay, particularly if they have family, and the system should be reformed so companies have the labor force they need.
During the GOP primary, Romney advocated for "self-deportation", which involves making things difficult for undocumented immigrants until they decide to leave. The view is antithetical to Fox's philosophy that building up Mexico's economy could prevent some illegal border crossings in the first place. Romney has since backed away from "self-deportation," saying he merely meant immigrants have the option to leave of their own accord, but Fox said he is still unsure of Romney's exact position.
"I see him one day saying one thing and the other day saying another thing," he said. "I don't want to be so critical, but real leadership has to be shown."
Fox said he wasn't sure which presidential candidate would better deal with immigration, but acknowledged that his views on the issue more closely align with Obama's. He noted that Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, has failed to deliver on a promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Fox worked with Bush when they were both in office to come up with a plan, but Congress was never able to pass it, and hasn't done much to address immigration in the five years since. Harmful laws such as Arizona immigration law SB 1070, which he opposes, have cropped up because of those failures, Fox said.
"If the president of the United States does not take the bull by the horns, does not discuss and come to a solution, then states at the local level are changing their constitutions and locally are changing rules and laws like they did in Arizona in an erroneous way," he said.
Both candidates have disappointed him by failing to speak about Mexico. Fox said he believes the North American Free Trade Agreement needs to be strengthened, and he hasn't heard enough from either candidate on how they would deal with the arrangement in a way that would be beneficial to both nations.
"NAFTA for the moment is dormant," he said. "We usually see the United States focusing on things that are in the Middle East, things that are far away, and not such an interest in our own relationship, that we are neighbors, that we are partners, and we are friends."
He said he was also concerned about their failure to mention the drug war and discuss how they would work with Mexico to end killings along the border. Fox is a major critic of the war on drugs, and said he believes the United States should legalize drugs -- particularly marijuana -- to end some of that violence.
But the subject didn't come up during presidential debates, and neither candidate has devoted much -- or any -- time to discussing it.
"They did not speak about it and I am surprised because we are neighbors and they are hiding away from reality, both candidates, because the war is on," he said. "The killing is every day. The problems at the border are every day. The tons and tons of drugs crossing the border are every day."
The biggest issue for now, though, is getting past the election and addressing the task at hand, which should include strengthening the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said.
"The problem is not the election and who gets it, it's what is going to be the situation once you're elected," he said. "How are you going to get the energy of the nation to move ahead?"