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Candidates in the race for Rep.  Loretta Sanchez’s 46th Congressiona District seat fielded questions Wednesday on immigration, free trade policies, and taxation at a debate Wednesday afternoon.

Three Democrats — former state senators Lou Correa and Joe Dunn, and Garden Grove mayor Bao Nguyen; and two Republicans — first-time Irvine councilwoman Lynn Schott and Sheriff’s commander Bob Peterson — attended the debate, which was hosted by the Orange County Public Affairs Association and held at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach.

Sanchez, a Democrat who has served the district — which includes the cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim — for nearly 20 years, is vacating the seat to run for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat. Correa and Dunn, both former state senators, are leading in fundraising and considered the frontrunners.

Several candidates invoked common themes of this year’s presidential election: job growth, rising student loan debt and increasing economic competition overseas.

Both Correa and Dunn emphasized reducing student loan debt as key to increasing opportunities and financial stability for millennials and as a path to the middle class.

“My pathway to the middle class was education, the great equalizer,” said Correa. “When I got out of school I had very little debt and that enabled me do the things I do for society.”

Dunn pointed to the burden of student loans as a main reason why home ownership, “one of the most stabilizing forces in our society,” has become unaffordable for many young people.

Schott also emphasized job creation for millennials by supporting entrepreneurship and small business, and government mortgage loan programs.

All the candidates said they supported comprehensive immigration reform, with the Democrats — Dunn, Nguyen, and Correa — also supporting a path to citizenship through deferred action programs for undocumented children and the undocumented parents of American children.

The 46th district is 40 percent foreign-born, according to the 2014 American Community Survey, and nearly 67 percent Latino.

Both Peterson and Schott prioritized the security at the U.S. border.

“I wouldn’t allow a stranger to walk into my home regardless of were they are from. If I invite you into my home, I will feed you, clothe you and protect you,” said Peterson. “But this is a nation of laws and we need to enforce them.”

Schott said the border was a top priority but “now that we have allowed people to come in, it’s our obligation to find a dignifying way to manage the situation we have.”

She said deferred action — which grants a temporary, two-year work permit and exemption from deportation to eligible undocumented immigrants — doesn’t offer any long-term stability for immigrants.

Moderator Jerry Amante also asked candidates their views on free trade deals, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal between twelve nations along the Pacific Rim that has been sold by the Obama Administration in part as a check on China’s influence on the global economy.

Nguyen said he would not vote for the trade deal because it sends jobs overseas and follows other trade deals that have “only helped a small segment of society.”

Peterson had broad concerns about increasing competition from China, while Schott spoke broadly about promoting free trade in order to encourage entrepreneurship but said deal needed to consider the long-term interests of the U.S.

Correa said he has major concerns about environmental, labor and intellectual property protections in the bill, while Dunn said he would not vote for the current version of TPP.

“We’re a consumer-based economy that relies on a growing, strong middle class,” said Dunn. “So if it is going to cost American jobs…my answer is no.”

Asked how they would handle regulatory reform and the loss of corporations and large businesses to other states, Correa referred to his experience in the state Senate working with the aerospace and biotechnology industries to reduce taxes and regulations.

“We talked to the aerospace industry and passed tax breaks to make sure the next V3 Bomber would be built in California,” said Correa. “We’re a very expensive state to do business, highly regulated, very high taxes…let’s focus on jobs that can survive in California.”

Dunn, meanwhile, rejected the notion that businesses are fleeing the state.

“If it was so horrendous, all of our business would be in Mississippi. It’s a balance,” Dunn said. “People want to live in California for the environment, parks beauty — so let’s dispense with the rhetoric, and where there are legitimate taxing issues, let’s have a discussion.”

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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