¿El Presidente?

Mitt Romney could be the first Latino president. So why is he blowing it?

He might look and sound like an Anglo-American, but Mitt Romney could make a real run at being the first Latino president. And it wouldn't be just in the sense that Toni Morrison called Bill Clinton the "first black president" or Latinos and even Muslims hoped Texas Gov. George W. Bush, apparently sympathetic to their issues, might be their honorary "first" when he got to the White House. As recapped this week on NBC's Rock Center, Romney's great-grandfather settled in a Mormon colony in Mexico in 1885. About three dozen Romneys still live in the northern state of Chihuahua, holding U.S. and Mexican citizenship, speaking Spanish and English, and described vividly by Nick Miroff in the Washington Post. They form one of a few enclaves started in the 19th century by Mormons who left the United States amid growing anti-Mormon sentiment, largely over polygamy (which the Romneys no longer practice in Mexico, either).

Moreover, Romney's father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, was born in Mexico. He lived there as a small child until his immediate family fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910. Noting the connection, a columnist in Mexico's Reforma daily speculated on Tuesday, Jan. 10, that the Republican front-runner could theoretically claim dual citizenship. It was tongue-in-cheek, but Romney's Mexican heritage is a reminder of the inevitably interwoven ties between the two countries, and his embrace of it might actually inject more realism into the immigration debate.

Of course, that hardly seems likely. Not only does Romney speak little about his Mexican roots, but he has defined himself in the primaries by criticizing pragmatic positions from other candidates as being soft on immigration. He attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry's practice of offering in-state university tuition to some longtime, college-bound undocumented immigrants as creating a "magnet" for attracting more. He jumped on Newt Gingrich's suggestion that there should be some practical path for legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants who have family ties and many years already in the United States by calling it a "new doorway to amnesty." Romney favors building a fence all along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, where there are only about 650 miles of barriers now. It would cost billions of dollars to construct and billions more to maintain, and it would probably still be breached by those wanting to cross. And Romney's promised to veto the "DREAM Act" legislation to provide legal status for children of illegal immigrants making their way through college or the military.

Romney as the upwardly mobile Latino could capitalize politically on vulnerabilities that President Barack Obama -- the first "Pacific president" -- faces due to his own tough policies on immigration and failure to push harder for the DREAM Act. His administration has set the record for most deportations, approaching 400,000 a year, an annual average 30 percent higher than under the Bush administration, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center. Obama's still popular with Latinos, but the Pew survey, taken from Nov. 9 through Dec. 7, showed that 59 percent of Latinos disapprove of Obama's deportation policy. Of registered Latino voters, 54 percent still approve of the way Obama's doing his job -- but that's down from 63 percent in 2010.

True, Obama's still trouncing Republicans among this slice of the electorate, winning Latino voters surveyed by 68 percent to 23 percent in head-to-head polling versus Romney. But Romney doesn't need to overtake him; all he needs to do is surpass the estimated 31 percent that McCain won in 2008, especially in swing states such as Colorado and Florida. Sensing the pressure, Obama has recently rushed to soften his image, giving Border Patrol agents greater flexibility to expel immigrants with serious criminal records over others and to avoid breaking up families in which some members are documented and others not. On Tuesday, he appointed Cecilia Muñoz, an advocate for immigration reform, to run his Domestic Policy Council.

Obscured by all the border politics is a fact of generational importance. If one takes into account exits and deportations, there's very little or no net immigration to the United States from Mexico anymore, according to various reports. The U.S. Border Patrol is catching fewer and fewer people trying to cross illegally. The main reason appears to be the lack of jobs in the U.S. economy, which Mexicans track assiduously by word of mouth from relatives already north of the border. Obama's tough policies have worked as a deterrent -- and deportations have reduced overall numbers in the United States -- but even accounting for the widespread drug violence, many note that Mexico's economy is more stable than it used to be, making it more tempting for Mexicans to stay home.

The reality plays out in places like the northern Mexico border town of Nuevo Laredo, connected by three bridges over the Rio Grande to Laredo, Texas. Father Gianantonio Baggio runs a shelter in Nuevo Laredo where immigrants can get medical care, food, and a night's rest on their long treks north or south. He says that deportees, scammed by con men, have been dropped off there with little way to get back to their homes in southern Mexico or Central America. Mexican newspapers carry reports of those heading north who have been met by violent smugglers who control the illegal border crossings and sometimes kidnap them for forced labor. Baggio says immigrants will brave several brushes with the U.S. Border Patrol but will usually give up trying to go north after their first gang kidnapping.

Baggio sees huge changes in immigration patterns. He says his shelter hosted around 10,000 people in 2009 -- 7,000 heading north and around 3,000 having been deported. In 2011 through November, he says, he had hosted only about 6,000 -- with 2,000 heading north and 4,000 going south.

The economic reality in the United States isn't enough of a draw anymore to make many Mexicans face the train-hopping, desert walks, criminal gangs, and possible deportation. Those going nowadays aren't Mexicans but Central Americans, especially Hondurans, whose countries have become increasingly lawless and unstable, so much so that some have trouble just getting food at home. At that point, it's not just about economics. "They are going to die anyway, so it's worth the risks," says Baggio.

With actual immigration slowing, this could be a time for candidates to look for a bipartisan long-term border strategy -- rather than building expensive fences or racking up eye-popping deportation numbers. Mexico, with about 113 million people, is a crucial neighbor, lately America's third-largest trading partner and source of imported oil. Democrats and Republicans seem to agree that a healthy Mexico is good for the United States.

Mexico has elections this year, too. The front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto, has said he would try to put Mexico on America's priority list, where he thinks it's not now -- a complaint that soured relations not long after Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were elected in 2000, pledging closer ties. There are still a number of issues to work on. U.S. companies need Mexican labor, and Mexico needs emigrants, as remittances are its second-largest source of foreign income. Mexico also needs U.S. aid in quelling the drug violence that has killed about 47,000 people over the last five years and still chases many Mexicans north. U.S. politicians seem to agree on that, but the $1.4 billion pledged in the anti-drug "Merida Initiative" has come slowly. In preparation for more drug war refugees, Paul Rexton Kan, associate professor at the U.S. Army War College, suggested in October that the asylum system be tweaked so it can more frequently offer shelter to people facing narco-threats, not just political repression. Turning people away to face certain death, he wrote, "strikes at the heart of American values."

To his credit, Romney did mention in New Hampshire the other day that his father was Mexican-born, a sign he might be intending to reposition himself for the general election. But does that even mean more denial of Romney's roots? Neglecting the long and interdependent relationship between these two countries in favor of playing to fears of Mexican immigrants stealing the jobs of U.S. citizens is denying history. A long time ago, a few Americans named Romney headed to Mexico for safety and freedom. Now others come from Mexico to find security in the United States, something the would-be Latino president should surely understand.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images


The 20 Percent Solution

Iran's provocative uranium-enrichment program is at the center of its confrontation with the West. It's also, potentially, the way out.

On Monday, Jan. 9, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had begun producing 20 percent enriched uranium at Fordow, a fuel enrichment plant buried deep underground near the holy city of Qom. On the surface, there is little new here: Since February 2010, Iran has been producing 20 percent enriched uranium at Natanz, another once-secret site located about 3 ½ hours from Tehran.

Iran disclosed neither the Natanz nor the Fordow site to the IAEA until forced to do so, in 2002 and 2009, respectively, when outside observers discovered and publicized them. Fordow is smaller than Natanz in scale, but better protected from prying satellites and, potentially, a bombing campaign. Worryingly, the plant appears designed to focus on producing higher enrichments.

What has raised the world's suspicions is that Iran continues to produce 20 percent enriched uranium despite the fact that this exceeds its civilian needs and, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged in September, does not make economic sense.

There are serious concerns over the proliferation aspects of Iran's enrichment activities. Increasing stockpiles of enriched uranium, together with studies related to an advanced nuclear weapon design, are building blocks for attaining a virtual nuclear weapon capability. (A state has a virtual nuclear arsenal if it possesses weapons-usable nuclear material and the knowledge and experience needed to design, manufacture, assemble, and deploy nuclear weapons.) So Iran's recent announcement that it plans to increase production of 20 percent enriched uranium is alarming.

Over the last few days, Iran has begun operating two enrichment cascades at Fordow. Furthermore, Iran is completing installation of two additional cascades, with their planned operation already announced. Once the four cascades at Fordow, in addition to the two Natanz ones, are operating, Iran will be able to produce 15 kg of 20 percent enriched UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) per month. This process uses as feed 3.5 percent enriched uranium, which is produced currently at a rate of 140 to 150 kg UF6 per month at Natanz.

This means that Iran's entire uranium-enrichment program is now being devoted to producing 20 percent enriched uranium. At current production rates, Iran can expect to have a stock of 20 percent enriched uranium of around 250 kg UF6 by the end of 2012, as well as more than 4 tons of 3.5 percent enriched UF6. (These estimates are based on the use of IR-1 centrifuges, which are now also operating at Fordow.) Iran will not likely be able to commission a large number of more advanced and powerful centrifuges before 2013. But if that happens, it will be an altogether different scenario.

If Iran decides to produce weapons-grade uranium from 20 percent enriched uranium, it has already technically undertaken 90 percent of the enrichment effort required. What remains to be done is the feeding of 20 percent uranium through existing additional cascades to achieve weapons-grade enrichment (more than 90 percent uranium). This step is much faster than the earlier ones. Growing the stockpile of 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium, as Iran is now doing, provides the basic material needed to produce four to five nuclear weapons. With IR-1 centrifuges, it would take half a year to go from 3.5 percent enriched uranium to weapons-grade material for the first nuclear device. More advanced centrifuges would cut the time required in half. If, however, IR-1s are using 20 percent enriched uranium as a feed, 250 kg UF6 with that level of enrichment can be turned to weapons-grade material in a month's time. This does not automatically mean Iran will be able to build a nuclear weapon in one month -- building an atomic bomb is a complex endeavor that requires precision engineering capabilities that Iran may lack -- but it does mean that the country would be able to "break out" of its international obligations very quickly should it decide to do so.

How can Iran convince the international community that its nuclear program will follow a peaceful track?

There are a few ways to go about it. One way would be to suspend the production of enriched uranium and convert the existing 3.5 percent and 20 percent enriched uranium stocks, with the assistance of the international community, to fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, as well as for another modern research reactor that could be provided to Iran. This approach would be good for Iran, as it would give the country a sustainable production of radioisotopes for industrial and medical uses in the shortest time.

Iran would also have to address the world's concerns about the military dimensions of its nuclear program, concerns laid out in the IAEA's most recent monitoring report. So far, Iran's leaders have failed to do so, despite being signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. With sanctions beginning to bite, tensions growing in the Persian Gulf, and international patience running out, there's no time like the present.


IIPA via Getty Images