In a First, a Candidate Forum in Translation

Democratic candidates were asked questions in Spanish that were translated into English. Univision, the forum's host, required responses to be in English.
Democratic candidates were asked questions in Spanish that were translated into English. Univision, the forum's host, required responses to be in English. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2007

CORAL GABLES, Fla., Sept. 9 -- The first presidential forum to be conducted in Spanish placed a couple of the Democratic participants in an uncomfortable position Sunday night: answering tough questions while simultaneously fiddling to make sure their earpieces didn't fall out and they could the hear the translation of the next question.

Those questions dealt with a range of issues of interest to Latino voters, from health-care policy to relations with Latin America.

Several questions focused on immigration, and the seven participants exhibited little difference on the issue, with all supporting changes that would allow illegal immigrants now in the country to stay and eventually receive U.S. citizenship, and all criticizing anti-immigrant sentiments. Nearly all the candidates committed to overhauling immigration laws in their first year in office, days after Republican candidates accused each other in a debate of supporting "amnesty."

"We all know that this has become a contentious political issue," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) said. "It is being demagogued, and I believe that it is being used to bash immigrants, and that must stop. The Republican candidates need to understand that they are doing a great disservice to our country."

The most remarkable part of the 90-minute forum, held at the University of Miami, proved to be not the responses but the format: Questions were posed in Spanish by two moderators from the Spanish-language television network Univision, which broadcast the event nationally; interpreters immediately translated the questions into English for the candidates, while a written English translation was beamed onto a screen in the arena for the crowd of more than 3,000.

Univision required candidates to answer in English, because only New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) speak Spanish fluently. That prompted Richardson to criticize the network from the stage Sunday night.

"I'm disappointed today that 43 million Latinos in this country -- for them not to hear one of their own speak Spanish, is unfortunate," Richardson said. "In other words, Univision is promoting English-only in this debate."

He then switched to Spanish but was cut off by moderators Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas.

Salinas and Ramos, meanwhile, delivered challenges of their own. Dodd, Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) were called to account for their votes to build a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border. All three noted their support for broader rights for Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal, but they said tighter border security is important. "That has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform," Clinton said, adding that in some points she supported "even a physical barrier."

Richardson called the fence "a horrendous example of misguided Washington policy."

"If you're going to build a 12-foot wall, you know what's going to happen," he said. "A lot of 13-foot ladders. This is a terrible symbol of America."

That seven of the eight Democratic candidates came to South Florida -- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) did not attend -- underscored the increasing importance of Latino voters in U.S. politics. Obama's campaign recently announced that he would skip some of the forums organized by liberal groups in the Democratic Party, but he was sure not to miss this event.

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