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"Border First" Sound Bite Isn't Good Enough for Latino Voters

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gop presidential candidatesDuring the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library last night, Noticiero Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart pushed the candidates to go further than their usual “we must secure the border” trope and actually answer a question on immigration.  ‘Pretend the border is secure,’ he said.  ‘What exactly would you do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country?’  Needless to say, there was much fumbling and many indirect answers. 

Their responses, or lack thereof, confirmed what we have been saying for some time—the current GOP field has strayed far from President Reagan’s centrist, problem-solving approach to immigration, and this will cost them Latino voters in the general election.  Spanish-language media coverage of last night’s debate reveals that 1) Latino voters see the “border first” sound bite for exactly what it is—an excuse to avoid discussing immigration reform, and 2) Latino voters really do want to know what the GOP’s plan for dealing with undocumented immigrants is.  Unfortunately, the Republicans are refusing to engage, preferring to walk a rhetorical tightrope to present a friendlier image to Latino voters, while maintaining anti-immigrant policy positions in order to retain right-wing primary voters. 

June 2011 polling from Latino Decisions and impreMedia reveals why this evasion is such a problem for the GOP.  By a 55%-30% margin, Latino voters said that the GOP is using the border as an excuse to block real action, and not to express a legitimate concern.  The same poll found that 66% of Latino voters trust President Obama and Democrats to make the right decisions in immigration policy, compared with 19% for Republicans.

Notably, the two leading Republican candidates, Governors Rick Perry (R-TX) and Mitt Romney (R-MA) managed to duck Díaz-Balart’s follow-up questions on policy and got away with merely waxing poetic on border security.  Romney even suggested that allowing talented young people who grew up in America and are undocumented through no fault of their own to go to school is a magnet for illegal immigration.  Puh-leeze.

In fact, the only candidate who did talk about real immigration reform was Newt Gingrich, who—after making the requisite comments about security—said:

And then find a way to deal with folks who are already here, some of whom, frankly, have been here 25 years, are married with kids, live in our local neighborhood, go to our church. It’s got to be done in a much more humane way than thinking that to automatically deport millions of people.

Our own Frank Sharry, Executive Director here at America’s Voice, rebutted the Republicans’ attempt to have it both ways:

The leading candidates for the GOP nomination may have been standing on Ronald Reagan’s stage but they did not stand in his shoes.  Reagan supported legalization, immigration and a welcoming America.  The top-tier 2012 GOP candidates do not.  It’s pure fantasy to think the Party can appeal to Latino voters simply by changing their tone on immigration, and not actually changing their positions.  And it’s hard to imagine how they reach the threshold of 40% of the Latino vote they need to re-take the White House with that approach.

Access the resources mentioned in this post below:

America’s Voice report, Why Do Elephants Put Their Heads in the Sand?” documenting GOP 2012 presidential candidates’ past and current positions on immigration and analyzing the politics of the issue for the Republican Party.

Latino Decisions Tracking Poll