Telemundo was very nearly excluded from Thursday's Republican presidential debate in Houston. Good thing it wasn't.
Maria Celeste Arraras, an anchor on the NBC-owned Spanish-language network, served as a panelist and immediately made an impact with her first question — and subsequent follow-ups — to Marco Rubio on immigration. She pressed all the candidates on the GOP's outreach to Latinos and posed two tough questions to Donald Trump, even getting him to back off his criticism of her employer.
If there was any doubt about the wisdom or value of including Spanish-language media in a debate, Arraras erased it.
Her opening inquiry to Rubio produced some clarity on an issue on which his position had previously seemed to shift, depending on his audience. Here's part of their exchange:
ARRARAS: Senator Rubio, last week, you said that on your first day in office, you will get rid of President Obama's executive action known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA for short.
ARRARAS: It is a program that has protected hundreds of thousands of young people that came here when they were children, brought to the U.S. by undocumented immigrants. This is the only home they know, and that is a dramatic change from last April when you said in Spanish, and I'm going to quote you (in Spanish) which translates to "DACA is going to have to end at some point, but it wouldn't be fair to cancel it immediately."
So, Senator Rubio, what changed?
RUBIO: It didn't change.
ARRARAS: Why is it now fair to cancel it on day one?
RUBIO: No, it's the same policy. It will have to end at some moment, and as I said, we will — we will eliminate that executive order. The people that are on it now will not be allowed to renew it, and new applicants will not be allowed to apply to it.
It was clear from Rubio's response that rescinding Obama's executive action on his first day in office would immediately end permit applications and renewals but would not void existing permits. That's a critical distinction — one that Rubio didn't want to state explicitly (probably because he knows some conservatives will rip him for it, given that DACA work permits are good for two years). But he was forced by Arraras to explain how he would "wind it down" to avoid the appearance of doublespeak, and now voters understand his proposal better.
Later, Arraras confronted Trump about his unfavorable poll numbers among Latino voters. She began by citing "a brand new Telemundo poll [that] says that 3 out of 4 Hispanics that vote nationwide have a negative opinion of you" — to which Trump replied, "I don't believe anything Telemundo says" and launched into his standard, vague assertion that he will ultimately win the Latino vote — because he will win the Latino vote.
That could have been the end of it, but Arraras made sure viewers knew that other polls, including one from The Washington Post on Thursday, have showed similarly bad numbers for the Republican front-runner. And she reminded Trump that he previously said he likes Telemundo, prompting him to soften his tone from a moment earlier.
"I love them. I love them," Trump said. "They're fine. Do you know what? They're fine."
Arraras didn't get Trump to elaborate on his Latino voter strategy beyond anything we've heard before, but she played an important fact-checking role here. It was a strong moment.
And when she came back to Trump toward the end of the evening, Arraras managed to highlight an oft-overlooked aspect of the border-wall debate.
As a matter of fact, U.S. officials have warned that it is the Canadian border which is the most significant threat. You have said that you will not build a wall in Canada. When it comes to national security, and the threat of terrorism, why does Mexico need a wall and Canada doesn't? Isn't that, like, closing the front door, and leaving the back door open?
Trump, of course, refused to accept the premise of the question — "I don't care what anyone says," he retorted — but Arraras's unconventional framing of the issue might make some voters think about it in a new way.
After getting booted from its sponsorship role in October as part of the Republican National Committee's suspension of NBC as a debate partner, Telemundo was reinstated just last month. It might have been merely a token gesture by the RNC — an attempt to not look unfriendly toward Latinos. But the network, represented by Arraras, made meaningful contributions on Thursday.
Maybe the RNC should invite Telemundo back for another debate.