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Immigration top issue at debate on Spanish-language TV

  • Story Highlights
  • Spanish-language television network Univision puts on Sunday debate
  • Democrats take jabs at Republicans for their stance on immigration
  • Delaware Sen. Joe Biden is only candidate to miss forum ahead of Iraq hearing
  • New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson challenges foes on pulling all troops from Iraq
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CORAL GABLES, Florida (CNN) -- Questions about immigration dominated a forum for Democratic presidential candidates put on Sunday by the Spanish-language television network Univision.

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Democratic presidential candidates at a forum Sunday put on by Univision in Florida.

Front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton condemned what she called "very destructive" rhetoric on the issue.

Other Democrats blasted Republicans for demanding to clamp down on the U.S.-Mexico border. The candidates also took implicit jabs at GOP contenders who refused to sign up for a similar Spanish-language forum.

"There are many in the political world and, frankly, in the broadcast world today that take a particular aim at the Latino population," Clinton said. "I think it is very destructive. It undermines our unity as a country."

She cited an immigration bill the House of Representatives passed in 2006 as a "particularly egregious example." Video Watch a sampling of the candidates' answers, translated to Spanish »

She said the bill, which would have punished people who aid illegal immigrants, "would have criminalized the Good Samaritan. It would have criminalized Jesus Christ."

Univision offered a similar platform for Republicans, but it was shelved after only one of the nine GOP contenders -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- agreed to appear.

Among the Republican field, McCain has been a lonely defender of the White House-backed immigration bill that foundered in the Senate earlier this year.

That bill would have created a path to legal status for the estimated 12 million-plus undocumented workers believed to be in the United States -- a provision many conservatives denounced as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said construction of a fence along the Mexican border to block illegal immigration was "a terrible example of Washington's misguided policy."

"Congress only funded half of the wall," said Richardson, who also served as energy secretary and U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration. "If you are going to build a 12-foot wall, you know what is going to happen? A lot of 13-foot ladders. This is a terrible symbol of America."

Clinton said she favored tighter border controls, but said the nation needs comprehensive immigration reform.

The failed immigration bill also would have created a guest-worker program for immigrants.

Sen. Barack Obama, who has placed a consistent second in national polls, said President Bush missed a chance to defuse the fears of American workers who believe illegal immigrants will take their jobs.

"They feel that they are losing jobs. They feel like they are losing health care," the Illinois senator said. "They feel that they are falling behind, and their children won't have a better future. So a president has to speak out forcefully against anti-immigrant sentiment and racist sentiment, but also has to make sure that all workers are being tended to."

Since only two of the candidates -- Richardson and Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd -- speak Spanish, an interpreter relayed questions from the network and translated the answers for the audience.

The debate was held in South Florida, home to an extensive -- and heavily Republican -- Cuban immigrant population. Dodd said he would begin lifting the decades-old trade embargo on the communist government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, saying Castro is "using that as an excuse for his own failures."

He said Cuba was already looking past the ailing Castro, who temporarily ceded power to his brother, Raul, last year.

"We need to understand it and be part of the transition in that country, to make a difference as it is occurring," Dodd said.

Clinton said Castro has gained allies in Latin America, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, under the Bush administration "because of the misguided, bullying policies of this president." She said she would work toward democratic change in Cuba.

Delaware Sen. Joe Biden was the only Democrat to miss Sunday's event. Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will hold a Tuesday hearing on the Bush administration's highly anticipated report on the progress of the war in Iraq.

Former Sen. John Edwards, the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, said he was concerned the report -- presented by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker -- would be "a sales job by the White House."

Edwards, of North Carolina, said that if Iraqi leaders don't reach a political solution to the four-year-old war, Congress should set a timetable for American troops to leave.

"And if the president vetoes a bill that has a timetable for withdrawal, the Congress should send him another bill with a timetable for withdrawal until the troops come home," he said.

Nothing in the Bush administration's report will change the fact that there is no military solution to the problems in Iraq, Clinton said.

"I believe we should start bringing our troops home," she said.

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But Richardson challenged her and other candidates by saying that he would leave no residual force behind in Iraq.

"I would bring them all home, every one of them," within six to eight months, Richardson said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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