Andres Oppenheimer

OPPENHEIMER: Republicans’ reply to Trump on Mexicans was pitiful

What’s most worrying about Thursday’s first Republican presidential debate wasn’t Donald Trump’s outrageous remarks about Mexico and Mexicans, but the fact that none of the other nine contenders had the courage to confront him with a vigorous statement setting the record straight on immigration and criticizing racism.

Even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — who took some distance from Trump’s remarks on immigration — seemed to go out of their way not to forcefully challenge Trump’s populist demagoguery, which blames illegal immigration from Mexico for much of what’s wrong in this country.

In case you missed it, Trump repeated his previous claims that the United States is being flooded with undocumented immigrants (in fact, their numbers have plummeted in recent years, according to U.S. Census figures) and that Mexico is sending to the United States drug dealers, criminals and rapists.

When Fox News debate moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump for specific evidence that Mexico is “sending” these criminals across the border, Trump couldn’t respond.

When Wallace pressed him again, Trump said “The border patrol... people that I deal with, that I talk to, they say this is what’s happening.” Trump did not provide one single name, nor study, nor document to support his allegation.

But none of the Republican hopefuls raised their hands to call Trump’s bluff on immigration. None of them cited recent figures from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey showing that the flow of Mexican immigrants to the United States has fallen from about 400,000 per year a decade ago to 125,000 nowadays.

None of them confronted Trump with Census figures showing that there are already more undocumented immigrants coming from China than from Mexico.

None of them, with the possible exception of Bush, made a thorough argument that the majority of the 34 million people of Mexican origin in the United States are good, hard-working people. Bush said most undocumented immigrants “want to provide for their family,” and immediately added, “but we need to control our border.”

Granted, Bush said that he supports a conditional path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, but he simultaneously courted anti-immigration zealots by declaring himself against an “amnesty.” Rubio, in turn, told Trump that most undocumented immigrants are not coming from Mexico, but from Central America, and added that “I also believe we need a fence.”

The whole cast of Republican hopefuls tacitly accepted Trump’s false premise that the United States is suffering from an avalanche of criminal illegal immigrants, and that its first priority should be to “secure the border.”

The reason none of Trump’s contenders dared to rip apart his narrative on immigration is, of course, that they don’t want to antagonize conservative Republicans who vote in the primaries who basically agree with Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric.

Nationally, only 39 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Mexico, down from 47 percent before 2008, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Trump, like most nationalist-populists, is tapping into the resentment of many Americans who are looking for a scapegoat for their economic problems after the 2008 U.S. economic crisis.

“The good thing about what Trump did is that [his comments] shined a light to the level of the problem of racism,” actress Selma Hayek said only half-jokingly in an interview with Fusion’s Jorge Ramos. “The minute he attacked the Mexicans, his numbers went up.”

My opinion: Trump’s Republican contenders may think that they did the right thing by avoiding an all-out confrontation with Trump on immigration, but they shot themselves in the foot.

They came across — some more than others — as a group of spineless politicians who don’t have the guts to speak out when a demagogue insults 34 million people of Mexican origin, many of whom will vote in the 2016 elections. Their response was pitiful and self-destructive.

In the unlikely — but possible — event that Trump wins the Republican nomination, the Republican Party is almost guaranteed to lose the election, because there is no way that Trump could win the 42 percent to 47 percent of the Hispanic vote that pollsters say the party will need to win.

And if Trump doesn’t win the Republican nomination and decides to run as an independent, as he admits to be considering, he will siphon off millions of Republican votes that will help Hillary Clinton, or whoever the Democratic candidate will be, become the next president. Either way, Trump’s Republican contenders lost by not standing up for decency and against bigotry.